Corporate communications

An article in yesterday’s New York Times on General Motor’s use of social media to respond to its ongoing ignition switch crisis raises an interesting question: why, when the mainstream media, the company’s Facebook page and other online channels are full of complaints has its broader online reputation barely been impacted (according to data from Crimson Hexagon)?

General Motors ignition recall crisis social media

If you were in GM’s shoes, which would you regard as the more accurate and useful reflection of its corporate reputation at this tricky time: online reputation or mainstream media coverage (irrespective of concerns about the quality of social media sentiment data – though, to be fair, it is in my experience better than most at Crimson Hexagon)?

Social media’s role as a real-time focus group of thousands sounds valuable and useful.

Your online reputation, after all, is your reputation.

Or so it is said.

But whilst this is a nice marketing phrase, it is also highly misleading.

Here are six reasons why online reputation needs to be treated with caution as a measure of broader reputation:

  1. Reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders, from customers, employees and investors to government, investors and suppliers, view a company
  2. These stakeholders often have different interests and talk about different topics in relation to the company
  3. A company’s online reputation is almost always dominated by discussions by customers and prospective customers about its products, especially if it is a consumer goods or services player
  4. While many customers now like to communicate with companies via social media, the great majority still prefer to use conventional channels such as call centres to register and resolve customer care queries and complaints, meaning many negative perceptions never make it online
  5. Some stakeholder opinions are rarely voiced in social media. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator actively discussing a company on Facebook? Ditto for pension fund managers or buy-side analysts on Twitter?
  6. The relative importance of different types of stakeholders varies over time. During its current recall crisis, GM’s core audiences will be the government, its customers and investors, and it is on them that it is most likely focused as an organisation.

‘Online reputation’ (however measured) is a reasonable and timely indicator of a firm’s broader reputation from a customer or general public perspective. 

But it should not be treated as an accurate or comprehensive reflection of the full range of views or, necessarily, of the relative importance of different stakeholders to that organisation, at any given time.

In this regard, mainstream media is often a more useful gauge of non-customer stakeholder audiences, including government and business opinion-formers.

Companies would do well to listen closely to both social and mainstream media for different if complementary reasons.


Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising. And at least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.


After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists, write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.


Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

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