Online reputation management: Preemptive strike or post battle damage control
Reputation management has always been a necessary component of running a business. But with the advent of the Internet, reputation management has become a whole new type of beast. Negative comments, whether true or false, can spread across the globe at the speed of light. Coupled with the anonymous nature of the Internet and the lack of regulation by all parties involved, this can spell disaster for unprepared businesses that derive even a minority of their revenue from the online world.
Online reputation management differs from traditional reputation management in that with the Internet, nothing is truly removed. Before the Internet, even negative press in a major publication would disappear from immediate view with time. Today, a single comment by an irate former employee or customer has the potential to be seen by anyone performing a Web search for your company name, and without intervention, this comment could be visible until action is taken.
The best way to handle an online reputation management issue is to prevent the issue from occurring in the first place. Since that’s not always possible, the next best option is to prepare your online brand for the possibility of negative press.
First, let’s define what is meant by an online reputation management (ORM) issue. An ORM issue can be something as simple as a single comment on a random blog by an ex-employee, or as complex as a video by a major news source that has gone viral. Either of these situations can cause financial damage to your business, but there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage as much as possible before an issue occurs.
If you have just discovered that you have an ORM issue, you should first assess the gravity of the situation. Is it a single post on a blog or forum by a single user? Have they posted similar content on several different sites? Is one person using various names or identities? Are multiple people posting issues about your business on more than one Web site? Has the mainstream media placed articles about your business on their Web sites? Answering these questions will help you determine how severe the issue is and what your immediate course of action should be.
Though, regardless of how severe your ORM issue is, your first step should be to try and contact the individual or group that is generating the negative press about your company and resolve your differences. Also, ask them to remove whatever negative posts they can online. Many times, however, not even the original creator of the content has the ability to remove it from the Web sites they posted it on.
Next, you must shore up your search results. This should be an ongoing process due to the volatility of the search results and should also be done as a preventative measure even if you don’t currently have an ORM issue. Your goal should be to have positive or neutral content appear for at least the first page of each major search engine. If possible, the first and second results for a search of your company name should be your company Web site or a Web site that you control. This may not be possible if you share a name with a large, well-known corporation such as IBM, but you may be able to use that to your advantage. It is much easier to push another company into the first page of search results if they share a common name with your business. A good example of other Web sites you can push up in the search results are your business’ Facebook fan page, Twitter page or any other social media sites your business uses.
No matter how hard you try, the 10 search listings that appear on the first page of Google, MSN and Yahoo! will not all be from your Web site. However, you can ensure that the content presented is not damaging to your company. One way to do this is to promote any positive or neutral Web pages that you do not own but contain talk of your company. For example, if you are a publicly traded company, it should be easy to get your Yahoo! stock quote to appear on the first page of Yahoo! when someone searches for your company. Other quality sources of content include news stories about your company, articles written by you or your employees and press releases. If these do not apply to your business, you may want to consider starting another Web site based on some function of your business. For example, if you do a lot of charity work, you could set up a 501(c)3 organization and create a new Web site to promote it. Just be sure to include your primary company’s name in the charitable organization’s name (for example, XYZ Corp Charities). The key is to be very vocal about the positive things you or your company accomplishes.
However, even after improving your search results, potential customers may still be able to find negative content posted about your company through the search engines. If there is a particular piece of content that is damaging to your business, there are other avenues you may want to look into.
First, pursue the issue with the Web site the content is posted on. This is most successful when the Web site hosting the negative content is in no way related to the content of the negative post. For example, if you install kitchen cabinets and an irate customer decided to post about your work on a computer hardware review forum, you may be able to have this categorized as spam and subsequently removed. To report potential spam, try using any automated methods such as the “Report Abuse” button on the site. If this does not work, you can look up the “whois” information and contact the site owner through e-mail or over the phone. Briefly explain the situation and politely ask them if they could remove the post, as the content is irrelevant. Also, be sure to inform the site owner if this issue has already been resolved with the customer. Depending on the popularity of their sites, Web site owners may receive hundreds of e-mails and requests per week. A rude request is almost always ignored and your e-mail address could then be added to their spam list, removing any possibility of contacting them in the future, so always be courteous!
If contacting the Web site owner proves unsuccessful, you may want to try working with the Web site’s hosting company. However, be absolutely sure there is value in taking the matter to this next step, as working with the hosting company could be effective or exasperate the matter. After all, even if the hosting company decides to remove the content, this may aggravate the site owner, causing them to post negative content about your company on their site.
When working with a hosting company, you must give them a valid reason to contact the site owner and have the content removed. Depending on the nature of the content posted, you may be able to locate where the original poster violated the hosting company’s terms of service. For instance, most hosting companies have provisions in their terms of service that prohibit the posting of illegal content. If the user who commented on your business posted content that could be considered illegal, most hosting companies will have it removed in the same day. It is much easier to get content removed if there is the implication of legal issues for the hosting company or Web site owner. If this is not the case, you will probably have to dig deep through the hosting company’s terms of service to find something that applies to your situation.
What if both the Web site owner and hosting company refuse to remove the offending content? Don’t worry, you still have several options. You can try working directly with the search engines to get the content removed from their Web index. This is more difficult to do, but, if the circumstances are right, it is possible to get them to comply. One issue when working with the search engines is the amount of time involved. Don’t expect the major search engines to remove the content quickly. Expect the process to take at least three weeks. Generally, they will only remove content from their search results if it violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), if the content is threatening violence or is in any way illegal. If you already have a business relationship with the search engine, such as a Google AdWords account, it can sometimes be easier to present your case via that avenue.
If getting in contact with the search engines doesn’t achieve the results you desire, you still have the option to press the matter to non-Internet related entities. You have the option to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is particularly interested in business practices, identity theft and violence in the media. While the FTC will not resolve your individual complaint, they will use your complaint to help detect patterns that could lead to prosecutions. If someone is impersonating one of your employees and the hosting company refuses to address the issue, for example, you could report the hosting company to the FTC.
Finally, if the damage to your business is great enough, you may want to speak with a lawyer and pursue legal action. It’s important to note that this should be your last resort, as it will cost you time and money and there is no certainty of results in your favor. However, sometimes a wellcrafted legal take down request from a law firm will have better results than direct contact with site owners. This should be the last step before filing civil or criminal charges against an individual.
Actively policing your online reputation and taking preemptive measures to mitigate any damage are a must in today’s digital business world. It’s important to understand that ORM should not be a tool used simply to hide negative feedback from people searching for your business. If used for this purpose only, your reputation management problems will continue to grow exponentially. Instead, when you find an issue with your business that has been noted online, listen to what your former or potential customers are saying and make the necessary changes to ensure that you keep as many of your customers as happy as possible. Save your reputation management tools for those issues that have been resolved, are currently being resolved or for those situations where the information presented about your company is maliciously false.