We’ve all googled friends, neighbors or potential partners to learn more about these people. Our results can greatly influence how we view those around us, even though we realize that the digital arena may not fully reflect a person’s values, behaviors and personality offline. The same is true in the corporate world, especially within healthcare. Bad provider reviews on Healthgrades or complaints about a health plan’s customer service on Facebook can make us think twice about these organizations, or even decide to take our business elsewhere. Negative press coverage is even more determinantal, and can turn valuable SEO keywords against a company when media mentions include these important phrases.

At Activate Health, we’ve had healthcare companies inquire about whether we can “remove” negative commentary about them online. Given that we can’t control certain aspects of our client’s digital presence through third parties like the media, that’s not usually a realistic ask. However, there are definitely steps that can be taken to proactively improve a company’s digital presence and even strategies that can help them deal with negative media mentions after the fact.

These steps are all part of the field of online reputation management. While it sounds complex, there is no magic involved in online reputation management. In fact, it involves some of the things most large healthcare entities are already doing today—via their social media, public relations and SEO efforts. However, integrating and targeting efforts in a way that builds positive momentum online and fosters goodwill is the ultimate goal of online reputation management.

Ideally, your company should be implementing this process before negative coverage hits the media or customers complain on Facebook. Yet the reality is that many healthcare organizations won’t worry about online reputation until they learn a hard lesson about how it can impact their sales, vendor relationships and partnerships.

You are what people read about you
One of the “low-hanging fruit” in the world of online reputation management includes addressing negative comments on social media or negative reviews on sites like Healthgrades. That’s because, unlike in the media, there is a two-way response mechanism built into these platforms.

It’s no surprise that two out of three people believe the Internet is the most reliable source of information about a business. And research has shown that online reviews are in fact big business—67% of consumers are influenced by them. So what can you do when individuals are seeing online complaints, venting and even spreading false commentary about you via online review sites?

The best action to take to counteract a negative review is to have your social media team respond politely to these reviews, exhibiting empathy without validating the complaint or taking on blame. You’ll want to ensure that all replies are not defensive, even though it can be difficult, and instead make sure that the customer feels heard. A helpful tip to keep in mind for the individual writing these responses—you aren’t truly writing to this customer when addressing a negative review. You’re drafting a response for all future customers to see. Considering this fact may help you be more positive and less defensive in your reply.

At the same time, you should be looking to generate positive reviews to help counteract negative ones, especially those that impact your overall rating on a review website. Encourage staff on the front lines of healthcare delivery to ask customers who seemed pleased with their experience to leave reviews. Research shows that customers who are asked to leave a review are 70% more likely to leave a positive review than if they are not asked.

While it is possible to have negative reviews through sites like Healthgrades removed, it happens rarely and only when a review violates the review website’s policy. For example, Healthgrades policy states that reviews using vulgar language can be removed. Reviewing and understanding these policies may give you an opportunity to have negative reviews removed, but only in very select circumstances.

Save your social media
Social media can drag down a healthcare company’s reputation incredibly quickly. Momentum builds exponentially across forums like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit when individuals share negative content with their network. That’s why a rapid response is even more critical in these forums. Best practices show that your organization should respond within 24-48 hours to any customer complaints on social media. (If you aren’t already, your team should be consistently monitoring your company name, products and services, high-profile employees, popular industry keywords and your competitors on all social media channels. This will allow you to respond immediately to any complaints).

It’s also important to realize that 34.5% of people use social media as a primary means to receive customer care. This is true in healthcare and across all sectors. As such, your social media responses should be as carefully crafted as a call center script. They must acknowledge each individual’s concerns, and how you are trying to make things right. While it’s important to show your customer that their opinion matters and that your team empathizes with their concerns, never respond to specifics of the complaint on social media. Just like in dealing with the media, a “holding statement” telling the individual you will contact them with more information and to address their issue is the best approach.

Of course, keeping your social media channels filled with proactive, positive posts is the best online reputation management strategy to counteract complaints. While the news and healthcare in general can be filled with negativity, your social media calendar should be filled with inspiring and upbeat posts that start conversations. Frequent posts will also help diminish the impact of complaints and negative commentary.

The worst thing you can do is establish your social media presence and then go weeks or even months between posting content. At that rate, customer complaints will be highly visible and will have a significant impact on your brand equity. While this may seem obvious, we frequently encounter sizable healthcare organizations that let social media flounder, whether because of staff turnover or a lack of understanding at the executive level about the importance of this ongoing need. Keeping momentum going on social media requires an investment, either internally or through a partnership with a healthcare marketing firm that understands your buyers and influencers.

You may also want to consider purchasing social media monitoring software that can help you keep track of what people are saying about your brand. A solid strategy is to track new posts and conversations about your brand and do a comparison over a three to six month or year-long period. With this data, you will have a much better understanding of how negative social media coverage affects people’s perceptions of your brand, and how you might be able to shift these perceptions into a more positive light.

Dealing with the beast of bad press
When leading health insurer Anthem experienced a massive data breech in 2015, it received a staggering amount of coverage in a wide variety of consumer and business press outlets. These results would show up on the first page of search results during the first several weeks of negative coverage, making them visible for all of the company’s customers to see. This coverage was not just a short-term issue; it had a lasting impact on the company’s online reputation. For example, if you google “Anthem data” you won’t find information about the company’s data analytics capabilities or technology. Instead, you’ll see a Wikipedia post talking about the data breach and an entire first page of search results filled with negative news stories about the health insurer. Because over 75% of people never look past the first page of search results, the image of your brand that is created by these first results is especially important to monitor.

While most organizations won’t face an issue of this size, we work with companies dealing with negative press quite frequently, which typically requires a two-pronged approach. The first step is proactive crisis communications (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming post). If your organization doesn’t have an internal expert in this area, it’s important that you conduct crisis comm in tandem with a skilled healthcare public relations agency. Much of what we do in this area is a short-term fix, however. Online reputation management, as the second stage, is a strategy for addressing both the short- and long-term implications of these negative news stories. Foundationally, it involves generating enough positive news around an organization through highly-targeted content marketing, public relations and strategic search engine optimization for specific keywords.

Know your (negative) SEO
However, you need to realize which keywords are dragging your company through the mud. In the Anthem example, “anthem + data” was clearly a search term that was destroyed through negative press. Even to this day, the company has not “taken back” this keyword. While this amount of press can sometimes cause irreparable harm, most companies with be dealing with just a handful of stories tied to specific keywords that they need to address through online reputation management. Their negative search results might be related to their company name, a product name, an executive or other staff member. Most keywords can ultimately be recovered in these cases. However, first you need to know where to target your efforts. That’s why any skilled online reputation management firm or marketing agency (especially one experienced in healthcare) will do a comprehensive audit of your company’s negative search results, reviews and customer complaints as a first step.

What to expect from online reputation management
Online reputation management firms can definitely help speed the recovery from negative search results generated by these issues. Yet this process still takes time. Depending on a variety of factors, including search volume, keyword competition and SEO, it takes 12-24 months on average for individuals to recover from negative search results driven by issues like negative publicity, and for corporations it can take much longer. Working with an expert in online reputation management can easily speed that time. Executives who are more proactive in working with experts before these issues occur will find that their company’s positive search results will quickly outweigh the negative even sooner.

As you can imagine, this is an ongoing process and one that can require a decent-sized investment. However, when you realize that a company’s entire reputation can be irreparably damaged in the blink of an eye through negative press and other means, it’s clear that online reputation management strategies are worth every penny.

If you’d like to learn how Activate Health assists leading health technology firms, health insurers and health systems in the area of online reputation management, please contact us today.