Image management was something that was once the province of people who, let’s say, handled publicity for Mel Gibson after his drunken-driving arrest.

But where image was once the concern of politicians, stars and the wealthy, it’s now an issue for every business, and anyone who does anything on the Internet. To put it in plain terms, you’ve got to watch your back by watching what people are saying about you.

The first person I heard enunciate this concept was Joe Rotella, the highly creative chief technical officer and director of operations for Delphia Consulting, an HR reseller based in Columbus, Ohio. Rotella, something of a one-man think tank, has been doing  more innovative things with the Internet than anyone I’ve yet met.

He advises that all businesses Google themselves, not just looking at the first few pages, but going deep into search results to find out what customers are saying, especially the disgruntled ones. And he says; follow up when you find those. An article in Tuesday’s New York Times noted that companies are using Twitter in the same way—to monitor market buzz.

The Web has the potential to build or destroy a business within minutes of information being posted.
And this changes the nature of what we have called public relations, but which I think has to be expanded to include defensive activities, rather than the classic PR role of sending information to the media. It encompasses more of the usual roles of publicity.

With major newspapers folding and most of us wondering what we’ll have in the future for lining our bird cages, this whole business was already up in the air anyway. Anyone who wants to provide information to the public must deal now with both traditional and emerging media, and hope they get it right.

Small businesses need to worry about message control in a way large ones used to. That includes passive PR such as the design of a Web page and how content is managed to who can put what on social media sites and what kind of picture you want to have of the owner on Facebook.

If you think this is not for you, consider that Sage just launched a small business-oriented initiative called SageSpark and will market it primarily through about 200 social media sites.

Don’t worry about not knowing what you’re doing in this new age. No one of us do. But it’s important to start now.

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