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As many seasoned entrepreneurs, CMOs, and corporate lawyers have learned, brand protection has evolved, or perhaps turned into a blood sport. Some industries are more cutthroat than others, but in the ever-changing world of social media and online marketing, companies are increasingly faced with corporate smear campaigns.
They are sometimes disguised as an onslaught of negative customer feedback. And at other times through cleverly orchestrated “whisper campaigns” on social media channels, industry forums or chat boards. These reputation attacks are just another set of tools of the trade for some unscrupulous competitors and the marketing agencies that hire them.
Related: Managing (and Fixing) Your Business’s Online Reputation
And because of the ability to recruit offshore teams using third-party recruiting platforms, bad actors are braver than ever before — slandering with impunity while tiered in anonymity via fake accounts and in a country that makes the legal process untenable.
So, what does the enterprising, savvy CEO do when faced with such an attack? Every reputation crisis is different, but here are some tips for emergency reputation management in such a situation:
Evaluate the problem
Does this seem organic, or are there signs of a contrived effort? To search:
Profiles of online posters and authors who seem to have no real history of posting comments, reviews, or articles in the past. Do they have deep profiles on LinkedIn, Instagram and other social media platforms? If not, chances are you’re dealing with a bot or sock puppet deployed by a competitor.
Another telltale sign of black hat sabotage is where the “unhappy customer or customer” actually has a robust online presence, but also has a history of posting mostly negative reviews. Here’s exactly what it looks like: An agency has been hired to launch a new corporate attack, reusing its previous online profiles to do so. Study these carefully. Have many of them also reviewed the same companies in the past? What are the chances that the same three people posted negative reviews to your wealth management fund and complained about the same plastic surgery center a year ago?
Your competitors might be looking to seed negative reviews about your brand on different listing and aggregator sites. They might be even bold enough to use fictitious names and post negative reviews on your Google My Business (GMB) page. A good way to address the same would be take stock of online reviews and work with reputation management companies to take negative content down.
Related: Suffering From False Reviews? Here’s how to fix the problem
Assemble a team
The team starts with your internal people. For larger companies, be sure to involve your corporate lawyer, chief marketing officer and appointed crisis manager in an emergency roundtable. Do we suspect who this could be? Is there a strategic way to eliminate this without attracting external resources?
Do not react
Knee-jerk reactions almost never work. Like a good chess player, you need to analyze the terrain and think a few moves ahead before you act. And we are talking about three-dimensional chess that spans legal, digital and crisis dimensions.
Don’t fight fire with fire
Once you’ve identified the culprit, you may be tempted to react in kind and become negative yourself. The myriad reasons why this is a terrible idea are beyond the scope of this article. But trust me – don’t do it. Let me know if you need to be talked off the ledge.
To do hire the right team
Your team should include attorneys, PR professionals, and reputation management experts. Sometimes a well-drafted question letter or TRO solves the problem. Or it could make things worse (think of the Streisand effect). Your PR firm should start assembling their crisis communication initiative and media blitz of positive content while the reputation management firm looks for ways to remove the offensive content and provide backup to the PR firm by lending some SEO juice to the new, positive articles as soon as they are live. It is not enough just to publish your company news. Every positive article published has to be more powerful than even the faintest negative post you want to remove from page one of Google’s search results – and you need at least ten of them to push the negative content to page two. Side note: no one visits page two, so pushing there is tantamount to deletion.
Trust your advisors, but decide for yourself
Remember the old maxim: “If all you have is a hammer, everything is like a nail”? The same is all too often true for law firms. They have one tool in their tool belt: to sue† So it may come as no surprise that they will probably advise just that. But again, forget the Streisand effect† The PR agency will want to launch a positive PR campaign, but be warned: this can draw unwanted attention to your business from journalists who are likely to exacerbate the negative news you want to hide. And reputation management firms typically post content that is ugly and nonsensical in an artless attempt to simply “push down” the negative without giving much thought to what will replace it. So you will have to find the right balance between these different tactics.
Related: 7 Ways to Recover After a Reputation Crisis
Force your advisors to collaborate and solve problems
You need to get them in the same room to solve problems, along with you and your internal team. They are each an expert in their respective fields, but you are the expert in your business, your brand, your vision and your competition. The best solution is probably a hybrid of PR, Legal, Reputation Management & Crisis Communications. Each of these professionals may have trouble thinking outside of their own job. However, if you’ve hired wisely, they’ll quickly adapt to work together and collude in your favor.
Unfortunately, like corporate espionage, reputation attacks are becoming another illicit trading tool across industries including capital markets, healthcare, and more recently blockchain platforms and cryptocurrency marketing.
Companies would be wise to consistently monitor the digital landscape and build a response team to address it all. The old crisis management plans are becoming shorter and shorter and are no longer one-size-fits-all solutions. As such, navigating the emerging threats requires a state-of-the-art, tailored approach to problem solving — one that spans the gap between PR strategy, reputation management knowledge, and process proficiency.