Edge International

Online Reputation Management for Professionals and Their Organisations

Sean Larkan

Online Reputation Management (ORM) has become one of the latest marketing and brand buzz-concepts. This is one every professional should be concerned about and should understand.

Much has already been written about ORM, as any search on the internet will show. I have found that much of what is available online does not explain where ORM fits in with other important brand concepts – thereby help readers understand why it is important, why it creates personal and organisational risk, and how to manage it. Ideally, your and your organisation’s ORM should be a strong contributor to the strength of your brands.

In this short note, I will try to address this issue in the context of how I explain the concept of ‘brand’ to clients, as outlined in my book Brand Strategy & Management for Law Firms.

Your ‘Brand’ and Your ‘Brand Offer’

Your personal and organisational ‘brands’ (your brands) are what other individuals think and feel about you or your law firm. What people think is due in part to what brand offer you make to market, and whether you deliver on that and they experience it.

Your ‘brand offer’ in turn is what you put out to market as your offer to the market – what you offer or promise to do or can do or deliver on.

Your brand offer can comprise a number of important attributes – your technical, leadership or management expertise, experience, reputation and style, your ethical behaviour, whether you live up to what you promise to deliver, and your accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It also includes how you interface with those who work for or with you and for whom you work, what you have written or said, your experience, expertise and reputation, your thought leadership, level of emotional intelligence (EQ), communication skills and style, personal values, etc.

The combination of all these aspects, and how other individuals experience these attributes and feel about you and your firm as a result, contributes directly to your brands.

However, keep in mind that your brand offer is generally not your brand as such. It is what you offer to market. Your brands are what others think and feel about your personal brand and your organisation’s brands.

Online Components of ‘Brand Offer’

What is published online by you or about you also becomes part of your ‘brand offer’ to market in the form of your online reputation, digital footprint or ‘presence’. What is online about you can be a challenge because you will have authored or published some of it, while other pieces will come from others in the form of comments, complaints, reviews of something you have written or said, and so on. It all goes into that online melting pot.

Of course, whatever is out there is searchable and ‘findable’ and may influence what others think about you and your firm, which means that it influences your brands. So, it becomes part of your intended or maybe unintended or even unwanted brand offer and can in turn influence your personal and organisational brands. In this way, it also becomes part of your brands as such.

So, this cause-and-effect nature of your online presence and reputation means it is both part of your brand offer to market as well as being part of what others think or feel about you – i.e., your brands. It is for these reasons that it is particularly important to do all you can to manage your online reputation.

Brand Fusion

This in turn impacts what I term Brand Fusion (BF) – that is, whether what you offer is actually delivered on by you and experienced in that way by other individuals. BF is important as it directly impacts trust in your personal brand, and trust is the foundation stone of a strong brand.

Given the weight and attention given to what is online – written or published by or about you – and that many people do online research before making purchasing decisions or commitments, it is worth taking care to ensure that your online presence is as favourable as possible. It lives there for a long time and is not easy to alter or take down, particularly if you were not the author of it and have no control over the relevant media. This can create risk for individual professionals and their organisations, and even cause damage.

Managing Online Brand Risk

What can you do to manage this risk? For a start I suggest the following:

  • Create awareness amongst professionals in your firm by having someone with expertise come in and explain the importance of ORM, where it fits into brand, the risks involved and how it can impact your or your organisation’s brand;
  • Research this topic thoroughly and have a clear policy for your firm around online publishing and even speaking engagements undertaken by any of your professionals, to ensure they are qualified to do this and will not mis-state or mis-speak;
  • Consider using one of the many online tools which can virtually search the internet and then vet and report on anything it finds about the firm or its professionals. This becomes an ongoing due diligence of what is ‘out there’;
  • If you don’t take the latter step, at least do a manual search from time to time or have a qualified person do it for you; and
  • Take active steps to manage what is online and try to have damaging material removed, corrected or responded to as soon as possible after it is published.

Do this and you will be better managing two important elements of your brands – your brand offers to market as well as what others think of you or your organisation – i.e. your actual brands.

A final word of caution on a subject beyond the scope of this short article: Where firms do create a formal or informal policy prescribing what staff can or cannot publish online, one enters a complex area in that a lot of the online activities of your staff members will be through private channels they belong to. How far can one realistically regulate that and dictate to staff what they should and should not be doing? This will also differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.


Edge Principal Sean Larkan is a former corporate/tax lawyer with extensive experience in conference and retreat presentation and facilitation. As an Accredited Practitioner of Human Synergistics International and a certified Master Coach, he offers Edge clients knowledge and experience in such areas as leader, group and organisational behavioural and cultural diagnostics and coaching, and serves as a critical adjunct to firms’ strategy implementation. He is the author of Brand Strategy & Management for Law Firms. 

Law firm brand success calls for leadership, education and structure!

Sean Larkan

Brand is such an important asset and so fundamental to the success or failure of every law firm that it is a strategic, not an operational or administrative, issue. It is therefore surprising how few firms invest in developing a common firm-wide understanding of brand and a supporting strategy – or put in the effort to strengthen its various components. Those that do reap some remarkable rewards.

Firms with well-known brands will sometimes feel they don’t really need to spend time on their brand as it is in ‘good shape’ and they haven’t had to do too much to get it there. What they fail to realise is that their brand has become what it has by accident, or even luck, as an off-shoot of other things being done well, rather than being a successfully implemented strategic initiative.

The importance of developing a common understanding around brand, but keeping things as simple as possible while doing it, cannot be over-emphasised. There are hundreds of thousands of books and articles on brand, many of which relay different approaches to brand, and use unique pieces of jargon. It can all become very confusing to non-brand aficionados. For brand to work in a law firm, it has to be broken down to a succinct educational and implementation process. Senior lawyers simply do not have the time or the stomach for anything more complex or time-consuming.

The first thing to understand about brand, and contrary to common belief, is that brand is not what we think it is or what we offer to the market by way of our skills, reputation and other attributes, but, quite simply, it is what others (mainly clients or non-client influencers) think.

And that is where the first challenge arises. Brand is a very personal, individual matter. It is about what individual people (or an aggregate of them) feel and think and experience about our brand. We can’t tell people how to feel and think; they will decide. This requires appreciation and respect and then the effort to address this challenge. There are many subtleties involved and no quick fixes; it takes time, persistence and consistent effort and interactions to influence such feelings.

Even those firms that have been educated around a common understanding of brand often find themselves derailed from sufficient focus and effort to grow and develop their brand. This is why it also takes the involvement of senior leadership and management, which in itself is another challenge. Such people do not often feel they need to get involved in such matters and prefer them to be ‘done by marketing’.

Two other important things to understand about brand are firstly that brand comes to the fore in three main forms – organisational brand, individual (usually partner) brands, and employment brand. Each needs to be understood and nurtured. These types of brand also need to be aligned, as they strongly influence one another. For instance, a well-regarded employment brand will contribute to a firm’s overall brand, while a strong organisational brand will contribute at least something to an employment brand.

A second important characteristic is that the most important foundational element to brand is trust. Trust is at the heart of all strong brands, and again relies on how individual people feel and think about a brand. It is very personal. It takes effort, consistency and time to build trust in a brand. Hard to build, easy to break.

One of the biggest influences on this issue of trust is ensuring that what the firm promises (e.g., on its website or in its published materials) is actually delivered on by the firm and everyone in the firm, achieving what I call brand fusion.

Let’s look at a simple example; a firm may make some bold statements on its website and in graduate recruitment brochures about taking an interest in individual staff development and ensuring new employees get good coaching, access to good work and so on. If a number of partners do not do this (a common issue!) or even the senior HR personnel clearly do not see to this, there will be no brand fusion and trust will never build in the employment brand, resulting in massive opportunity cost to the firm. This cost can come in the form of delays in hiring and higher recruitment costs, not getting access to the best people, higher-than-normal staff turnover and so on.

A very useful exercise to provide structure and discipline is to develop a short-form, written brand strategy. I always recommend in an early iteration of such strategies that the first focus be on education and creating a common understanding around brand. It is then important to achieve consistency by ensuring all new entrants to the firm are carefully inducted into this understanding and appreciation around brand. The strategy also has the benefit of identifying leadership around the effort, creating direction, highlighting strategic key objectives around the brand, allocating responsibility and providing for some form of report-back and review of progress. In this way one can ensure key members of the firm are involved in the project from an early stage and that over time, desired results are achieved.

Even with the above efforts and other key related initiatives, experience has shown that brand initiatives invariably need to be followed up on, stress-tested, updated and re-energised from time to time.

Without doubt, without this type of approach and some needed structure, discipline and leadership, one of your firm’s most powerful and valuable assets may be relying on chance for its survival and prosperity.