There’s no doubt that a company’s reputation is one of its greatest assets.

A recent survey from Weber Shandwick found that 70% of consumers wouldn’t buy a product if they didn’t like the brand.

But in today’s world, where there’s nowhere-to-hide, it can be harder than ever to control what people are saying about your company.

Qantas is just one company that learned a hard lesson about how easily social media campaigns can backfire. Encouraging users to use the hashtag #qantasluxury while planes were grounded due to industrial action was the recipe for a PR disaster. 

Meanwhile, a viral video of a careless FedEx delivery man dented the company’s image (along with the customer’s package).

Entrepreneur Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think like that, you’ll do things differently.” 

This is even more true today, in an age of instant communication and social media.

At the same time, customers are becoming smarter and more tech-savvy.  More of us check online reviews before making a purchase, whether that’s a car, a camera or a holiday.

The same stufy mentioned above shows that 67% check the company behind a product name, and believe it’s a sign of quality assurance.

Of course, thinking twice before sending a tweet or an angry email should go without saying. But tracking your company’s reputation across the internet can be a lot harder -especially when you operate in different countries and across different languages.

Fortunately there are a number of tools and strategies that can make it easier.

Use multilingual tools

A first step is to monitor mentions of your brand name and keywords across different languages. Google and Yahoo Alerts are basic tools which provides email updates as frequently as you choose.

If you’re working in international markets, you’ll need to keep an eye on other search engines such as China’s Baidu and Russia’s Yandex.  Most of these have similar tools that can inform you by email or RSS feed. 

monitorThis and Keotag are particularly useful, as they can track your track your keywords across multiple languages and search engines.

Be careful on social media

Rapper Chris Brown and car brand Chrysler both discovered how an ill thought-out tweet can cause a storm of negative publicity. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the informality and immediacy of Twitter and Facebook. But it’s essential to have clear guidelines for company Twitter use to prevent an embarrassing faux pas.

It’s just as important to monitor what people are saying about you. While most companies view social media as a key part of their marketing strategies, many fail when it comes to interacting with followers. Not answering tweets or ignoring questions sends a strong message to customers that you don’t care.

Google’s Social Mention can track your brand across different social media networks.  Of course, if you come across critical tweets, try to take the conversation off the social network and respond by email.

Don’t forget blogs, forums and boards

The web has created a wealth of opportunities for people to share their thoughts and views. It’s impossible to check every single forum related to your industry, or monitor the millions of worldwide blogs. Fortunately, services such as Boardtracker and Blogpulse can do the legwork for you.

Of course, if you don’t understand the language this can be a trickier task. If you’re on a tight budget, free tools such as Google Translate can help you understand what’s being said. But it’s best to use native-speaking translators to make sure your responses don’t get lost in translation.

Encourage online reviews

With smartphone use soaring, more people are searching for online reviews while out and about. Encouraging customers to leave reviews on your website is a good way to build trust and get feedback. You could even offer an incentive, such as a prize or loyalty points, but make sure you treat all reviewers equally.

If you do find negative reviews, take time to respond to them. Even the best companies make mistakes, but replying promptly and listening to concerns can go a long way to putting things right. If you find factual errors correct them. If reviews are inappropriate or offensive, then you can ask a moderator to remove them.

Of course one pitfall to avoid is the temptation to fake reviews. Belkin was left with a red face after it advertised for writers to create positive reviews. To make things worse, it was only offering a pitiful $0.65 a time!

As in the offline world, building your online reputation can be a long, slow uphill climb. But it’s much better to take a proactive approach than resort to damage control if things go wrong.

And as social media and word-of-mouth marketing become more important, it’s certainly worth the effort.