Is Paid Media the Final Reputation Frontier?

By | September 22, 2014

Reputation is one of those amorphous things that people struggle to define, yet seek to protect at all costs.  Famous quotes about the importance of reputation abound, and companies generally accept the notion that reputations are worth protecting.

Over the two decades I’ve been working in reputation management, the practice has evolved from an earned media-centric model that was driven largely by the client asks for “positive publicity about the Company, featuring the CEO, please” to a more integrated approach and an understanding that reputation begins with your actions – it is something you demonstrate, more than you discuss.  Clients increasingly acknowledge the importance of internal culture to reputation, as employees are the universal touch point to all of your other constituents.  With the rise of social media, reputation managers embraced content and owned media as an effective tool for enhancing reputation and worked to be prepared for the power and speed of social when a crisis threatens a company’s reputation.

Recently, there has been a noticeable uptick in the use of paid media for reputation efforts.  And while “brand advertising” has long been an accepted practice – these campaigns take a more substantive approach and highlight the Company’s values, ethos and citizenship, more than its products.  This is a subtle but important shift, signaling the value of a fully integrated approach use of media for reputation management, including earned, owned and paid.  Some brands, like Chipotle, have long been known for their citizenship as a core marketing message.  But they are no longer alone. Here are three companies doing it well:

  1. Microsoft has had a long standing commitment to education, and the opportunity for technology to level the playing field and lift entire communities out of poverty. Microsoft has been running a TV spot that contrasts an African village’s educational needs, with an Appalachian boys’ opportunity to get to college – showing us that the world isn’t so different, and that Microsoft’s commitment to education spans the planet (But ironically, that spot doesn’t seem to be online anywhere).
  1. In a recent campaign presumably designed to make you stop thinking about that oil spill in the Gulf, BP puts a face to the company (because we trust people, not companies, especially big oil companies) and focuses on the jobs they are creating all across America (more than a quarter million, in case you were wondering).
  1. Walmart’s Made in America campaign serves as a reminder of the retailer’s long tail, and its commitment to jobs beyond those seniors working as Walmart greeters. This is a not so subtle message to those who may have their issues with Walmart as an employer to remember that American manufacturing’s rebound is reliant on companies like Walmart.

There was a time when any kind of paid media was considered taboo in the world of public relations, and running reputation programs entirely on earned media was a badge of honor.  This may be the end of that era, as forward-thinking communicators tasked with building and protecting their company’s reputation fund the balance between owned, earned and paid media in order to effectively engage their constituencies with meaningful, substantive interaction.  And I think that is a good thing.  Let’s not shackle our profession with limits on how to best develop a client’s reputation.  Great strategy should be channel agnostic, and great reputations are earned over time across multiple channels.

Of course, when a Company starts using mediums like television advertising to tout its good citizenship, it invites scrutiny.  Before you start planning a Super Bowl spot, be sure you are walking the walk.

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