The once-subtle force of reputation management has entered the mainstream as more of us depend on search engines and social media for our view of the world.
The holly was not decking the halls at Target stores this Christmas when Techcrunch reported credit card data from 40 million customers had been stolen, making the retail behemoth potentially liable for a fine of $90 for each cardholder, or $3.6 billion.
But there is another, possibly worse nightmare to come, a bad dream that never goes away. When you search "Target credit card" in an Australian earch engine today (two weeks after the event), you will find 9 of the top 10 links refer to this story, which was reported in hundreds of high-profile media sites (see image below). Is there any doubt that Target's SEO guys will be working overtime with their PR people to turn back the tide of negative press? Worse still, as long as this story remains current, they have next to no chance of succeeding.
Once the domain of the PR industry, reputation management has become a discipline that involves SEO, search engine marketing and media relations. Reputation management consultants use a variety of techniques to create positive content about their clients, leveraging from Google's own preferences to push "bad" content off page 1 of search engine results.
Their tactics include media coverage, press release sites and blogs, and they complement their content creation services by making sure links to this content show up in powerful websites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Youtube and across the social web.
Having a deep, welll structured and keyword-honed website cannot be underestimated in the reputation management mix, even though industry pundits have tried to predict the death of SEO this year. (The Forbes article on this topic itself ranked No 1 across ALL of the massively popular media site's articles, stirring the SEO vipers' nest as none other.)
Newsmaker CEO Leila Henderson, who operates a press release distribution service that promotes relevant, high-quality content, says th grim predictions are related to the continual tweaking of the Google algorithm to prevent digital media experts from 'gaming' the system.
"In fact, Google's changes are good for all of us -- no matter which way you slice it, both search engines and real people want relevant, interesting content that they care about and which responds to their immediate needs.
"This change in philosophy away from a 'backlinks' approach to a 'social content' approach has increased the quality of our press releases significantly. We do nothing to manipulate this - our members simply publish stories that people want to read."
Ms Henderson sees another major trend which may be used effectively as part of ongoing reputation management -- the exchange of discounted services in return for serving sponsored messages (aka, online ads) to the customer; as opposed to serving ads in exchange for free content, which is a business model as old as publishing itself.
AT&T this month launched an all-fibre network in Austin, Texas, with a price of $70 per month for download speeds of 300Mbps, upgradable to a gigabit at no extra cost in 2014. This price is only available if you agree to see targeted ads from AT&T and its partners. Sadly, these are speeds Australians can only dream of at any price, but the exchange of your eyeballs for discounts on high-value services is something you should look out for in this country, too.
"The idea is that if you agreed to see the content, you will be more open to the sponsored message," Ms Henderson says. "Companies and governments can use content partnerships to manage the messages you see about them, putting an extraordinary power to polarise views in the hands of big brands.
"Smaller brands can use content marketing techniques, too, of course, but these are not without cost unless you have endless hours and a fabulous writer at your disposal. If you yourself do not have the skills, the most valuable person on your team will be your PR person. PR people are skilled at using language to persuade - and they know the best places to publish your content, the right journalists and the right bloggers.
"If you want a good reputation online, you have to do good things - go above and beyond to serve your customers and they will talk about you. Participate actively in social media, and people will respond. Valuable content is the great attractor, and like cream will rise to the top."