How IT Can Support Reputation Management in Our Social Age

Oracle was in the news for the wrong reason this week when a former employee filed a lawsuit alleging the firm is racist. The incident provides some lessons in image and reputation management in our age of social media and 24-hour news cycles. As it turns out, IT departments can help protect the brand.

I was struck by a story, which pulled a lot of ink this week, suggesting that Oracle is racist. A former employee is suing Oracle, alleging he was fired after trying to get equal pay for a worker coming from India. The simple suggestion of equal play got him booted, he claims. The story spread like wildfire — after all, what manager today would fire any employee for arguing for equal pay?

Had we heard this story a decade ago, we'd have likely concluded it was BS and suggested the guy was fired for some other reason. Why? Then, as now, human resources works to assure that really stupid moves such as this simply don't happen.

In today's world of social media, though, these stories go viral. Long before the HR manager can say, "WTF?" the firm's brand and sales have been put at risk. (Indians control an impressive amount of IT spend and are likely to respond unfavorably to the belief that Oracle is aggressively taking advantage of their countrymen).

The typical response, which Oracle appears to be executing, is to avoid the problem and hope it will go away. This stuff is pretty sticky, though, and I bet it will come up again and again for the firm.

Today's Firms Face Threats From Inside, Outside and Everywhere

In our social, Internet age, a firm faces a vast array of threats from inside (disgruntled employees and incompetent mangers) and outside (upset customers and competitors). These groups, or even individuals, can leak or write on the Web and get as much attention as a large company if they make the "news" or leak pithy enough.

[ Tips: How to Avoid Online Reputation Management Nightmares ]

Allegations have as much weight as actual proof. Even fake reports from comedy sites can be mistakenly circulated as fact. (Some are pretty funny — to folks who weren't fooled, at least.) News services are way too eager to break the next scandal and, thanks to staff cuts and the speed at which stories develop, they aren't able to vet stories the way they used to.

This means there's a very narrow window from the time a negative Tweet or Facebook post about your firm goes live and the ensuing viral catastrophe. It's clearly not enough time to get a group of executives in a room, formulate an action plan, circulate it for approval and execute it. By the time that happens, the event is out of control, and the folks on the front line look like deer caught in headlights.

Proactive Reputation Management Means Finding, Responding to Threats ASAP

To mitigate this problem, put approved action plans in place to respond to likely exposures. Use analytics to unearth these exposures in real time. As soon as something shows up about the company in the news, flag it; if it's negative, assess it to determine how viral it might become. Provide the executive responsible for the decision with the news, a risk assessment and a selection of preapproved responses — which can include doing nothing. Let the executive make the appropriate choice and move to protect the brand and company image in a timely manner. Hopefully your firm can get ahead of it all.

Online Reputation Management

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Oracle could have mitigated its exposure with a timely statement from a credible, widely followed third party pointing out the incredible unlikelihood of the allegation. To make this happen, though, you need a way to both identify the exposure and activate the defense before the event become a story.

Technology and planning can do that. A firm's image is everyone's responsibility. IT can help by installing event capture functionality to ensure that the public relations team receives timely updates about potential exposure. Letting PR take things from there could result in far less damage to your brand — and far less stress.

IT can be proactive and step in to help a department in danger. In turn, IT benefits from a stronger brand and the capability to showcase the importance of a proactive IT organization. After all, being part of the solution is always good for any organization.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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