False information online can take on a life of its own

Posted on Written by Michael Sciulla
Michael Sciulla

Nothing can ruin a well-constructed reputation built on years of sound business practices and smart marketing like a disgruntled customer who, thanks to the Internet, can now put a virtual sign outside your door that screams “Go away” or “Buyer beware.”

The Internet is replete with websites such as Pissed Consumer, Yelp and Ripoff Report that enable anyone to become an instantly published critic, airing their grievances and sinking your business at the click of a mouse.

For better or for worse, the rise of social media has turned the tables to the point that what people say about your brand may be more influential than what you have to say on your website.

In addition to these platforms there are also unsubstantiated rumors, “misstatements,” factual errors and subtle sideswipes that can have an equally disparaging impact that can live on forever in Google search.

Case in point: Just prior to the Miami boat show, the following comment was posted on the Boating Writers International LinkedIn site:

Question: What has happened to PassageMaker?

Response: A day later a veteran journalist asked, “This is quite the abstruse question. What does it mean?” Virtual tongues, I am sure, began to wag.

Response: Within hours the original poster replied, “Apologies, a rumor was floating around the Vancouver boat show that PassageMaker was ceasing publication, evidently not true.”

Response: A few phone calls and another day later, PassageMaker’s editor-in-chief, John Wooldridge, posted a message on the LinkedIn thread that PassageMaker was “alive and kicking.”

Response: A handful of boating writers subsequently posted comments complimenting PassageMaker and its editor, finally putting the whole kerfuffle to rest.

In this case, quick action and a cast of supporting comments limited any further damage to the magazine’s reputation. No harm, no foul? Perhaps.

Closer to home, while preparing a press release for the Marine Marketers of America panel discussion “How to Manage and Maximize Social Media ROI” at the Miami boat show, I relied on a bylined Folio article — in third place in a Google search — to provide me with some background information about one of my speakers. Folio noted that BoatQuest.com “serves users looking to buy and sell boats that measure below 35 feet,” and so that’s what was used in the release.

Within a matter of hours, I received an e-mail from BoatQuest.com GM Mike Dickman, saying that his company’s market was not limited to boats under 35 feet and that the information on Folio’s site was inaccurate. He explained that efforts to get Folio to correct this mistake had been unsuccessful. I apologized for the error and told him that I would correct the record when he was introduced at the event.

In this case, an unsuccessful effort to correct online information led to yet another inaccurate portrayal of a company.

All’s well that ends well? You be the judge.

In the grand game of things, both of these cases demonstrate the pitfalls of unintended information that takes on a life of its own online.

But what do you do if someone is actually out to sully your online reputation? What should your company to do? What recourse do you have?

I recommend picking up a copy of “Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand or Business Against Online Attacks” by Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis. It hit the market late last year and is chock-full of up-to-date information, providing a veritable checklist on what to do and where to go if someone is out to get you online.

Before you begin your counteroffensive, you need to know that the prevailing federal law, section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, does not give you, the aggrieved party, much of a leg to stand on. According to the authors, “Website owners are not obligated to remove any content created by visitors to their sites. This user-generated-content exception means that an anonymous person can host libelous or other harmful content on a website, and the liability for that act remains with that person alone.”

If you find information that is harmful to yourself or your business, the authors strongly recommend that you respond in an unemotional and businesslike manner to avoid escalating the situation. They counsel that you listen first, empathize and then focus on how things can be different the next time.

Above all, they suggest that an integral part of your Internet marketing strategy include a pre-existing defense in which your online social community comes to your defense, as was the case with the PassageMaker situation outlined above.

The authors term this a “reputational cushion.” Like antibodies attacking a virus, your reputation can be safeguarded by tying together as much positive and descriptive information about yourself or your company as possible, linking all your sites together and then making as many organic links as you can to other sites. Should something unfavorable be posted online, the odds are good that your friends will come to your defense.

Ways to manage your online reputation include:

• Establishing a Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts) or Social Mention Alert (www.socialmention.com) to keep track of what is being said about you or your company.

• Visit Google’s Privacy Center (www.google.com/intl/en/policies/privacy) to learn about the information it shares.

• Google’s URL removal tool is intended for pages that urgently need to be removed — for example, if they contain confidential data that were accidentally exposed.

• An offending post might violate a website or web hosting company’s “Terms of Service” policy. Check with its webmaster and appeal to the company’s sense of fairness.

• Use search engine optimization to push the offending post off a search engine’s first page.

• A Doe subpoena is often served on an online service provider or for the purpose of identifying the author of an anonymous post. Most jurisdictions permit a plaintiff who does not yet know a defendant’s identity to file suit against John Doe and then use the tools of the discovery process to seek the defendant’s true name.

• Ripoff Report has a fee-based corporate advocacy business remediation and customer satisfaction program at www.ripoffreport.com/CorporateAdvocacyProgram/About-Our-Program.aspx. Caveat emptor.

• Yelp offers what it calls a free business account at www.biz.yelp.com to reply to negative reviews.

• Pissed Consumer also offers a fee-based remediation service at www.pissed consumer.com/business-solutions.html, but once again, caveat emptor.

If all else fails, there are commercial services that will go to bat for you, including Reputation Rhino and Reputation.com. The latter has been advertising heavily over the airwaves. It promises to help people control their online lives by monitoring the Web, finding and removing what can be deleted and suppressing any negative content that shows up high in your search results. The service also offers to create custom profiles and other content for you or your business to build a positive online presence.

Previously known as ReputationDefender, its basic monitoring service starts at $99 a month and increases, depending on what you want it to do.

Surprisingly, it seems that even this watchdog can’t control the hounds. Although a Google search for reviews of Reputation.com places the company’s website at the top of the page, the page also contains a link to one very unhappy customer who apparently was never satisfied when doing business with ReputationDefender in 2009.

To make matters worse, he’s joined by a number of equally opinionated souls venting their warnings on the Pissed Consumer website. Although we know — all too well — that you can’t please all the people all the time, the unfortunate truth is that there’s a brave new world out there, and sooner rather than later it would be smart to start building a defense against it.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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