First of all, credit where credit is due. Elixir Sytems, a search engine marketing company out of Phoenix has an excellent white paper on online reputation management posted on the SEMPO site here.
They're definition of online reputation managment as a cross between marketing, public relations and search engine optimization is pretty much on the money. Once the domain of public relations, reputation management has witnessed a migration from the hands of primarily, the media into the hands of the consumer.
The proliferation of affordable, accessible media channels including video, blogs, podcasts, user ratings and web sites and media tools, not the least of which including digital and video camera, and cheap, if not free web building tools quite literally means anyone can say anything at any time and with little or no effort.
In 2005, Jennifer Laycock, in her SearchEngineGuide.com article, Online Reputation Management, Are You Doing It? mentioned a site regarding Coca-Cola that featured the company in a very unpleasant manner. At that time, the site in question sat in position 10 on Google. As of this writing (April 2007) the site in question now sits in position #6.
There are two points to be made. The first is that any company can be a target of "bad" press. The second is that it bad press generally arises out of no where, at the grass roots level. If Web 2.0 has taught us anything, it perhaps that minimalism rules and it is occasionally proving all to sticky. Witness Wikipedia results that seem to be at the top of almost any search. There are reasons for that, but generally, larger companies are not quite as fleet or responsive as they need be.
Moreover, the time spent combing through the web in search bad thoughts, feelings or words is time that is generally not available.
And that is by far the best reason for outsourcing to companies who understand it. Beyond press releases, blogs, online alerts, viral initiatives, podcasts, vlogs, ratings, reviews, guestbooks, forums and simple content sites may well be off your public relations company's radar. They are not, however, beyond the reach of consumers who make many a purchase decision based on what others have to say.
Online reputation management is a specialized skill that requires monitoring, assessing and responding. It also requires the deft skill of knowing when to respond and how.
Many a young entrepreneur has shot him or herself in the foot by pressing the "send" button when they should have pressed the "thinkaboutit" about. Many a seasoned entrepreneur as well.
When it comes to online reputation management, seek advice, and then listen it.
Have a good one.
~ The (SEP) Guy