Grayling's Jon Meakin discusses its Critical Conditions report

Opinion: Big companies fail the brand resilience test

Jon Meakin, Grayling’s global head of strategic services, discusses the findings of the agency’s Critical Conditions report into the online reputations of 50 international companies from the Fortune 500.


Grayling's Jon Meakin discusses Critical Conditions report

Jon Meakin

Issues management is part and parcel of most professional communicators’ lives. Our job is to protect and enhance reputations, exerting whatever influence they can, through various channels. And yet many appear to be paying insufficient attention to the biggest, most powerful, most influential channel there is: Google search.

For our Critical Conditions study, Grayling analysed the search results of a cross-section of companies from the Fortune Global 500 in five sectors (travel and tourism; financial services; healthcare; FMCG; and tech). Here’s what we found:

  • Almost half of the companies analysed have negative content on the first page of their Google search profiles (and since 83% of people never make it past page one, little else matters beyond that);
  • Much of this negative content was old; the oldest story we found on page one of a company’s search profile dated back to July 2013;
  • 85% of this negative content was more than a month old, demolishing the myth that it is only or mostly current content that is served up by a Google search;
  • Tech companies, while far from immune to negative issues, do the best job at keeping such content off their page one search results, suggesting there are lessons for companies in other sectors;
  • The three most prominent topics, spanning the five industry sectors we looked at, were:
    • Corporate ethics
    • Customer service
    • Cyber security

And this negative content is just sitting there in companies’ virtual shop windows, causing millions of dollars worth of reputation damage, and certainly lost sales – a single piece of negative content on page one results in a 22% drop in traffic to a brand’s site.

All of this matters because we are in the business of influence, and Google is, quite simply, the most influential source of information there is. Apart from its enormous reach (5.5 billion searches every day), research also shows that it is also more trusted than the news media, or advertising.

So why aren’t we devoting more of our energies to influencing what people find when they search for our companies, or our clients?

In broad terms, it is because this has historically been the preserve of specialist SEO agencies, and there have been many snake oil merchants over the years who made a lot of easy money through simple back link strategies.

But with the most recent changes to Google’s algorithm, solving the search problem is now much more in the PR person’s wheelhouse. Google now ranks content according to:

  • Authority (if it’s in the media, whose sites have a high domain authority, it ranks highly)
  • Relevance (content that reflects the language that people are actually using, the terms for which they are searching)
  • How engaging it is

In other words, crafting and telling engaging stories and having them reported by the media is what counts – and that’s what PR has always been about.

The other reason this matters – and the whole reason for Grayling’s Critical Conditions report – is that bad news sticks. It’s just a fact that people are more likely to click on, consume and share negative stories. Which explains why some of the negative content we surfaced as part of our analysis was so old.

In the early days of my PR career, I had a boss who was very sanguine about the issues that would flare up from time to time on one client or another. “Tomorrow’s chip paper, my boy,” he used to say. Well, with NGOs, online activists and citizen journalists, as well as the fourth estate, holding businesses, politicians and others to account, you can forget that. Those negative stories can hang around forever, and if you experience an issue or a crisis, it’s not over until Google says it is.

And that’s really what our Critical Conditions report is about – the preventative action that companies can take. We used our proprietary GCore technology to undertake the analysis, and it is precisely this kind of tool that companies need to use to assess their online brand health, and prescribe remedies.

Google search is the new reputation battleground, and any organisation that places a value on its public image needs a proactive approach to the management of its search profile.

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