I am a big fan of David Henderson and look forward to his blog posts. He wrote a piece recently that stimulated some strong discussion here at AHA and pretty much everywhere I have brought it up. With the headline The Very Broken PR Agency Model, you know right away that David is going to touch some nerves. In his post, he says that the agency business is singularly about billable hours and that the focus of most PR agencies isn’t on the work or the client.

I think he has some valid points and I strongly believe that as an industry, PR is in a time of huge change and the world we live in is now different. Not everyone is embracing this evolution and I think that some agencies are going to suffer because of it. David does admit that there are exceptions and that there are some generally smaller to mid-sized PR shops that “are flourishing because they are darn good at what they do.” He also says that is “the exception, unfortunately, in a large industry dominated by the money hungry big agencies.”

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I had an interesting email discussion with a journalist this week about online reputation management. She was doing initial research for a story that will focus on the importance of online reputation for not-for-profits. I think it is an interesting story and it is a topic that is relevant to most organizations, especially in challenging times. People are talking about you, whether you know it or not.

All organizations, especially not-for-profits, are being affected by the current economic situation. The organization’s reputation is even more important now when it seems that a majority of people are watching their money and being more careful about how and where they spend.

We are consistently online checking what is being discussed about each of our clients, good and bad. It’s a part of the day-to-day for us. We check traditional media, relevant online and social media sites, blogs, microblogs like Twitter, and forums. Pretty much anywhere that we can access, we are following and monitoring. The key thing is what happens next, you have to review the information and take action if it is warranted.

Being responsive is essential online. A negative blog post or someone talking about an issue with your organization on Twitter needs to be responded to immediately, not at the end of the week when you get around to reading your Google Alerts, RSS feeds or other feeds (we monitor lots of other feeds and know how challenging it can be for you to monitor). This monitoring isn’t an easy thing to do – communications professionals are busy and this just adds to the stack of deadlines.

There are two approaches to online reputation management, one is the proactive approach that includes search engine optimization (SEO), reaching out and connecting with bloggers and others that could be talking about your organization (which should include staff, volunteers and other stakeholders). The other approach is reactive – responding to criticism (whether you believe it is accurate or not) and dealing with misinformation or leaked confidential information. Well, perhaps there are three approaches. The ostrich approach of burying your head in the sand and pretending that no one online is talking about you is one that we strongly recommend against.

You can’t delete what is being written online about you, but some organizations have managed to push it down in a Google search so that it doesn’t come up first. In our opinion, that’s a Band-Aid. If there are negative discussions going on about your organization online, you should find out what they are, check their source and make sure that it’s not a competitor or some other person or group that has a negative agenda (this kind of attack is dealt with differently).

If it is an individual or group that has an issue, listen to what they have to say, engage with them about what went wrong and why and, if it is authentic, make it right. See this as an opportunity to learn what your organization can be doing better and to hear directly from your customers, clients, critics and supporters.

Having the ability to learn what is being said about your organization—good and bad—and to respond immediately is a huge asset for a communicator.

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There is a bit of a debate going on about creating a blogging code of conduct. Tim O’Reilly, one of the visionaries of Web 2.0 and blogging has put a draft code of conduct on his site.

It is a question that we are often asked by clients – what happens if someone comes on a blog and posts negative, derogatory or nasty comments? We feel very strongly in free speech and the right to disagree, agree, provide feedback – good and bad – and discuss, converse and engage with each other. BUT – what happens when it gets nasty? I’m not talking about passionate, engaged, smart exchange, discussions and even disagreement. I’m talking about personal attacks, corporate attacks – postings that have no objective except to bully, embarrass or threaten.

To me, this is blogging gone wrong. What is incredible and amazing – and has the power to change the world – is the open, easy and respectful exchange of ideas, the opportunity to discuss, disagree and debate. It is collaboration, support and inspiration. But – there are a lot of people out there with issues. Their whole focus is on attacking and in many cases, they feel completely justified in doing this. And it scares me. Nasty attack postings on blogs are painful, frightening and upsetting. Often these people will hide behind being “anonymous” – and that makes it even worse.

The debate on creating a blogging code of conduct is hot. Some bloggers really don’t like the idea and feel that it is censorship. I can see that. But after having watched some pretty nasty attacks online, I think that a code of conduct is a good idea.

When we work with a client to engage them in the idea of blogging, we put it on the table – and in the blog – that discussion, debate, opinions (good and bad) and even disagreement are welcomed in the postings. And our client has to agree that they will answer the tough postings and respond to the negative comments with as much focus as they do the positive ones. But – personal attacks, obscenities, and mindless rants are posts that will be deleted. And we will explain in the blog why the post was deleted.

It can be nasty online, as anyone who has ever had an attack posting focused on them or received an email full of anger and hate. In our experience, these postings and emails usually say more about the person writing them than the person they are attacking. They are often full of inaccuracies and errors and the point of them isn’t to create a discussion to find a resolution to a problem. We know that along with freedoms come challenges – and we are incredibly grateful that we live in a world of freedoms. With this freedom, comes the opportunity to choose what we will and will not accept as discussion. For us, that means that anything based in discussion, dialogue and respectful communication is an incredible opportunity to hear from our audience.

You don’t have to agree with us to make a great conversation – in fact, most growth comes from speaking with people who don’t think the same things you do. A great discussion is one of the best things in life! So tell us what you think – is a blogging code of conduct a good thing or a bad thing?

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