NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's common knowledge (or should be) that search engine optimization is one of the key tools for companies trying to manage online conversations during a crisis. But according to many of the country's leading crisis-communications experts, most marketers are taking the wrong approach when it comes to employing an SEO campaign.
The problem, they say, is that companies aren't bothering to utilize SEO or reputation management until after one of their wells is spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean or after hundreds of their cars kill a number of people due to acceleration issues.
By the time BP decided to implement an aggressive SEO effort during its oil spill crisis this past summer, the company had already lost control of the conversation and its brand online. Steve Marino, director of digital and social media at Publicis Groupe's MSL Group and the person charged with running BP's social-media efforts while he was at WPP's Ogilvy PR this past summer, said the key is to be prepared and have a very strong SEO effort going prior to any crisis.
"You need a strong social presence so that you're getting a lot of good search-engine optimization all the time, so that when a crisis does hit, you have good results coming up already," Mr. Marino said.
"I wish we had a stronger SEO presence before the BP crisis hit, but we didn't. Considering what the crisis was, being prepared with terms like 'oil spill' or 'oil something' is a no-brainer, but it didn't happen. So we were behind the eight ball."
Mr. Marino said he thought BP's SEO efforts played out well but could have been better. "We didn't hit it out of the park because it was a little late, but they had a fairly good presence," he said.
He recommends marketers anticipate what potential crisis could happen and have a number of "key negative terms" in mind to buy against. "You want to have those ready to go because people do start searching on those terms, and you want to have your brand come up with some positive results against those negative terms," Mr. Marino said. "I recommend clients have an aggressive SEO plan in place because it does so much good during a crisis. Marketers have to continually get that positive content out there so that they have good search results talking about what their company is doing."
Dallas Lawrence, managing director for digital public affairs at WPP's Burson-Marsteller, said many marketers have taken their eyes off the ball in managing the less tangible long-term online reputational challenges and became too focused on immediate gratification issues like CPM and website hits. "And as a result someone else is driving the conversation when it comes time to manage the crisis," Mr. Lawrence said.
Mr. Lawrence said despite the "snake-oil salesman tactics" in the digital space proclaiming SEO the best thing since sliced bread, there is no "secret voodoo" recipe known only to social-media gurus. Mr. Lawrence said there's very little in terms of immediate impact a marketer could accomplish from an SEO perspective. "A lot of these SEO people will tell you they knock off the negative results in 30 days," Mr. Lawrence said. "That's just not sustainable. You can pull some SEO sleight of hand to have some things happen real quickly. But the only way to really correct or protect an online reputation is a sustained, focused and committed program that constantly generates regular content on a few key terms that you really hammer and repeat consistently."
Aside from having an SEO campaign in place way before a crisis hits, Mr. Lawrence said marketers need to constantly develop new online content that focuses on three or four specific areas so as to not dilute their brand. "Marketers have to home in on what they want people to know about their brand," Mr. Lawrence said. "And should a crisis occur, we then feed that beast we already created by putting out new content and driving people to messaging that will assuage the fears or concerns they have. We then launch a search-engine marketing campaign where we buy the key terms around our crisis. But the most basic element of an SEO campaign is having started it before your crisis and thinking long term about how to move the needle for your brand and build a more robust presence for the brand online."
Harlan Loeb, U.S. director of crisis and issues management at Edelman, said SEO needs to be at the top of the list for a marketer assessing a crisis situation. "As you evaluate the viral nature of crisis management and as facts become increasingly negotiable, the ability of a company to project facts and a strategic point of view is absolutely critical," Mr. Loeb said. "Many times SEO plays a fundamental role in achieving that objective."
But Mr. Loeb warns that an overly aggressive SEO campaign could in fact do more harm than good. Marketers, he said, need to appropriately calibrate their SEO response, and if it's disproportionate to the crisis, it becomes obvious to consumers. This could result in the SEO campaign becoming the story. "And you don't want that to happen," Mr. Loeb said.