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Reputation Management Horror – A True Story in Malaysia

Reputation Management Horror – A True Story in Malaysia

Michael Teoh reminded me about an experience I’ve encountered in the web marketing industry back in the early days of 2008. At that point of time, there were a team of us marketers trying to help a reputable company in Malaysia* with their reputation problems online. There were seven (7) of us altogether, and we were working hard to ensure their brand received loads of positive news – From both the inside and outside. It was really tough work.

Previously, one of our sister companies also faced a similar problem with their brand name. Due to some legal issues, this sister company of ours was viewed in the eyes of the public as “Cheater & Scammers”. Worse, Hong Kong and Singapore’s governmental bodies were involved and there were many police reports filed against this company.

I will not go further here as this is separate case.

We received a reputation management assignment from our bosses. A hardcore, solid case indeed. The 7 of us sat down at a roundtable for discussion. “What would probably be the best option?” we thought to ourselves. Since we had one prior bitter experience happening to ourselves, we didn’t like the situation at all.

The Case Story

They came clean – The top management had serious issues with the police, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and a number of political bodies. They were slapped with charges, got the attention of both domestic and international press, screwed their brand name real bad and their advertising agency were desperate to make things right.

This company knew that their generic branding practices will not work in such cases, nor do any amount of monetary injection to shut the press up. The problematic company was asset rich, but they didn’t see how any of the generic, traditional-style marketing could help. According to one source, they searched for a professional ‘Repo-man’, referred to as the Master of Turnarounds – Where he holds high level, influential and strong contacts/relationships with certain parties, helping problematic companies like this to turnaround public perceptions about them. A service like that would cost them around US$60,000/mo for a professional to come in.

Brand reputation is on a very thin line, their business is at stake. When their story got blasted out to the public, this company’s corporate sales dropped tremendously. In point form, here’s what happened:

  1. The Problematic Company (herein referred to as “XXX”) got caught ballooning a project cost to a total of 418%, costing billions of Ringgit. The public questioned “Where did the difference (or extra profit) go to?”.
  2. XXX failed to explain the price increase despite being handed over a recommended price by the Ministry.
  3. XXX also gave the public wrong impressions (and statements) on its marketing works, leaving questions flying all over about the huge amount of ‘allocated’ sum to branding, publicity and marketing.
  4. XXX was accused to have received millions of dollars to cover up a scam, by telling another story to cover the already failed one.

Summary & Timeline

April 2008 – XXX’s advertising agency sought help from sub contractors to handle their reputation online. Our company was selected, director was briefed on the situation and the message was passed on to us. We worked out our first plan and work initiated.

May 2008 – Having received proper processing, XXX still has some issues to clear. They tried releasing positive press releases to both domestic and international news aggregators for best intentions. It was clear that it’s a waste of money trying to rebrand the brand locally. Their budget was VERY SMALL.

June 2008 – Name still wasn’t cleared. I received massive amounts of unnecessary pressure from the advertising agency looking to ‘make things happen or we’ll fire you’. Our team rediscussed our strategies and proceeded. Bad press continue to pour in huge amounts. We figured another way out.

July 2008 – Stunningly, with the help of some external tools, our strategy worked. It was a minor success, but good enough to fend off some bad press only for some months. We continued heading towards marketing their brand overseas, ignoring domestic incidents.

August 2008 – Although XXX was relieved off its online negative press sentence (dominantly Google & Yahoo search), I reported to my boss, iterating any continued work will not be viable for our company’s business. Our work stopped immediately. #Mistake: The contract did not correctly (in legal terms) state ‘Reputation Management’ as an added service with proposed costs.

September 2008 – Full payment still not made by XXX’s advertising agency. It’s already due. We consolidated, collected data, wrote a case study, sum up reports and documented a list of workable solutions for XXX based on our experience.

Activities Performed

When we first received this reputation management assignment, we were banging our heads on the wall, trying to think of a viable solution by leveraging our resources and the power of the Web. There were a number of common solutions (to our understanding back then) such as relieving the top 30 results for keywords (brand names, conversion keywords, product names, etc). But these processes cannot live long.

  1. Raking search results for converting & brand keywords (Top 30) through notable, third party mediums.
  2. Liaising with local press, webmasters and discussion mediums to release positive-oriented resources.
  3. Creating positive profiling in the international arena through influential organizations and media houses.
  4. Organizing small discussions in large volumes through international mediums to slunt positive public perspectives.
  5. Increase internal activity transparency, and mass publish for short term purposes during the uptrend of bad press.
  6. Introduce differential point-of-view towards bad press.

We achieved #1 and it was an effective one. #2 wasn’t really working; #3 made its way through certain organizations in Hong Kong, Philippines, Dubai and a few more areas which I cannot remember; #4 worked very well, #5 had a minor success but we were deprived of more information than transparency; #6 worked effectively on niche markets only.

That was the first set we did, and it took us about three months to complete. The remaining activities were mostly supporting works.

Why were our campaigns not sustainable?

Running reputation management programs isn’t an easy task – You don’t learn it everything in a day, profile a company immediately and handle bad press in a flash. There are numerous activities such as requesting bad press removal (which is one of the most difficult things to do), changing public perspectives towards a situation, notifying potential markets through trustable medius (which might take forever) and so forth.

Not only that, reputation management programs for companies like XXX is like fighting a losing war, or playing a losing team in a football match with a 5-0 score at the 80th minute. If you don’t work as a team, collaborate, define specific goal values, increase business value and target the correct audience, all your work may just go down the drain in a flash. Some of the reasons why our campaigns couldn’t sustain was because:

  1. All internal communications between our company and XXX have to go through many layers.
  2. There is no collaborative work between XXX’s advertising agency and us. We were on our own – With no resources and enough information to continue pursuing.
  3. Their reputation management budget was minuscule: The whole program didn’t make any business sense.
  4. There were no informational support (internal and external).
  5. We were forced to perform an unnecessary, money-wasting campaign (and I WILL TELL YOU WHAT IT IS – Google Adwords).
  6. We had no control over the website architecture, content and structure – Which should be the base of all our work.
  7. XXX continued delivering messages that are negatively translated by local and international press.
  8. International repo works started 1 month after the planning – Days before I proposed the ‘no-viability notion’.
  9. Our team did not have contacts influential enough to fend off bad press.
  10. Campaign period was short, and was panically performed during the ‘hot news’ period.

A very notable problem these unsustainable works in the whole campaign tilts further towards inadequate communication between XXX and our company.

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