Controlling the Digital Narrative

Reputation management requires companies to control the narrative about their brand. This task is more difficult in digital media, where online platforms give sophisticated and malevolent users the tools to tailor and distort information. RANE spoke to experts Howard Opinsky, a digital reputation management expert and president of communications strategy firm Five Blocks, and Curtis Hougland, a long-time social media innovator and expert and founder of digital advocacy organization Main Street One, about how companies can protect their image online.

Search engines are major influencers of online public opinion. Sociological research shows that people tend to be more open to information that they find on search engines because they actively sought out that information and they view search engines as impartial – even though algorithms tailor results to the type of information that a user has already expressed an interest in.

  • Hougland notes that search engines are commercial platforms that are built with digital algorithms designed to give users more of the content that they have expressed an interest in. For example, a user that frequently reads conservative news outlets will find more conservative-friendly stories in his search results.
  • Hougland explains that search engine algorithms have evolved past prioritizing popularity and rank results based on length of content, frequency of updates, page linking, and relevant keywords.

The front page of search engine results forms a strong narrative about a brand, but many different actors contribute content to those results. Opinsky notes that many companies make the mistake of focusing on optimizing their site to appear at the top of the results when they may be better off trying to manipulate the results of the entire front page of search results to form a positive narrative.

  • “The first ten results are really the lobby to your business,” explains Opinsky. “If you don’t control that content, somebody else does.”
  • Hougland notes that companies often lose control of the front page because they don’t make enough content, devote enough resources to making their content dynamic, or monitor search results to see what the public is seeing.
  • Opinsky recommends that companies consider creating a misinformation and counter-misinformation plan that would be capable of detecting digital reputation risk early, distribute remediating online pieces, and provide sufficient liquidity and frequency of digital brand narrative to build resilience and deploy quickly when things go wrong.
  • Hougland adds that consumers are increasingly sensitive to company reputation, and overwhelmingly want to purchase from companies that are socially conscious. It is significantly easier to maintain a positive brand narrative when a company already has a good reputation.

Both malign and benign actors can manipulate search engine results. Public relations firms have long used search engine optimization to make certain brands appear higher in search engine results, but activists and competitors looking to spread negative information about those brands use the same tools.

  • Search algorithms also tend to emphasize trending pages, disproportionately elevating sensationalist stories. Opinsky points out that search engines do not differentiate between conspiracy theories and well-sourced journalism.
  • Activists have proven effective at manipulating search engines using human or bot networks. For example, conservative activists elevated a Joe Biden parody site to the top of search results, and other far-right activists ensured that a racial slur appeared after Barack Obama’s name in Google’s autocomplete feature.
  • High-profile politicians are more frequently denouncing companies by name, and the resulting news coverage will ensure that those stories have a place on the front page of search results.

Opinsky offers a number of guidelines for companies optimizing content to appear in search engine results.
  • Ensure that relevant websites are constructed so that the website name and technical tags within the code are closely tied to the brand name. This is particularly important for the company’s main website and the most important sub-pages of that site.
  • Look at your other content, including social content, and see how much of it is surfacing in searches. If it isn’t showing up, compare it to competitors’ content to see how search algorithms treat it.
  • Create content specifically for the purpose of increasing your online footprint. Content should showcase things about your business that you want people to know.

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