The information explosion that arrived with the commercialization of the Internet has been a great boon to humanity. But with it came a dark side of online brand and reputation attacks that can do serious damage to businesses, both large and small.
Most businesses are utterly dependent on the Internet. It touches nearly every aspect of commerce, from conducting day-to-day operations to maintaining a positive public image. As a result, businesses are increasingly vulnerable to smear campaigns – online attacks that can originate from competitors, unhappy customers, past employees with an axe to grind, or even dissatisfied investors. Due to its instantaneous nature, a clever but false online attack can get attention and quickly spread, doing serious damage.
Because of this, reputation management is a greater priority for businesses than ever before. “You have to be more prepared – faster to respond than you were in the past,” says Phil Maxwell, the Director of Enterprise Risk Management at the Coca Cola Company. “That’s one of the biggest differences today versus even three or four years ago.”
Types of Attacks
Online attacks against businesses can come in a variety of forms, but some of the most common are:
• False reports. These may be posted to websites such as Ripoff Report.
• False information. Often posted to social media sites, like Twitter or Facebook.
• Negative, false reviews. These are posted to customer review sites like Yelp.
Attacks such as these, unfortunately, can be very effective. According to the Cone Online Influence Trend Tracker, four out of five people said that the negative online reviews they had seen made them change their minds about making a purchase, or influenced their perception of a company.
The first response of many who have been targeted by false and misleading attacks is to strike back. This may be human nature, but experts say it is important not to overreact. “In some cases it may be a misunderstanding,” says Tom Egelhoff, a writer and workshop presenter. “Where did the information come from? Is the source reliable?”
But Egelhoff acknowledges that you have a right to defend yourself online, and if you think a business competitor really is targeting you, he says you must react promptly and decisively.
Anticipation is an effective strategy, and one that Egelhoff recommends. You can do a lot by planning ahead, before any such attacks even occur. Egelhoff says you should establish yourself as an authority in whatever business you are in, so that a positive reputation is already in place. Contact local newspaper and radio stations and offer to write articles for print or to be read on the air, so you are seen as an expert in the field. Join business groups with a positive public image, like the Chamber of Commerce or the Kiwanis Club. And if an attack does come, he says to arrange a focus group of your best customers. “Show them what is happening and ask for their help in spreading a positive message about your business.”
Online attacks can run the gamut from negative but fake reviews to false allegations of criminal misconduct. It is especially dangerous that such charges can be made anonymously. The targets of such attacks may feel powerless to do anything about it, but they aren’t. Dr. Chris Anderson, of Cyber Investigation Services, says that the most effective strategy for defending a business against online attacks involves three things: protection, monitoring, and defense.
• Protection – Businesses should have positive content on the Internet that ranks high in Google search results. These should include customer reviews and articles.
• Monitoring – Pay attention to what is being said about your business on the Internet, so that you can react quickly if a problem crops up.
• Defense – How you respond when your business becomes the target of an online attack. Dr. Anderson says that options include trying to resolve the issue with whoever initiates the attack, writing a polished and well-reasoned response, or suing for damages and to force the negative content to be removed.
If you find your business is the victim of an online attack, remember Tom Egelhoff’s advice to not overreact. Reacting badly can only make the situation worse. Online reputation management may best be left to the professionals. InternetReputation.com provides its clients with unique strategies that allow them to take control of their online profiles.
“Exploring Strategic Risk: 300 executives around the world say their view of strategic risk is changing.” See http://deloitte.wsj.com/riskandcompliance/files/2013/10/exploring_strategic_risk.pdf
“What To Do If Your Competition Is Lying About You,” by Tom Egelhoff. See http://www.smalltownmarketing.com/negative_competition.html
"Protecting Your Online Reputation: 3 Key Tasks Your Business Must Complete in 2014." See http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/12/09/protecting-your-online-reputation-3-key-tasks-your-business-must-complete-in-2014/#5110c074527f