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As many seasoned entrepreneurs, CMOs and in-house counsel have learned, brand protection has evolved, or perhaps devolved, into a blood sport. Some industries are more cut-throat than others, but in the ever-rapidly changing world of social media and online marketing, increasingly, companies are finding themselves on the receiving end of corporate smear campaigns.
Sometimes disguised as an onslaught of negative customer feedback posts and at other times through cleverly orchestrated “whisper campaigns” across social media channels, industry forums or chat boards, these reputational attacks are just another set of tools-of-the-trade for some unscrupulous competitors and the marketing agencies that they hire.
And because of the ability to recruit teams offshore using remote hiring platforms, bad actors are bolder than ever before, slandering with impunity while layered in anonymity through 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 reputational crisis is different, but here are some tips for emergency reputation management in such a situation:
Evaluate the problem
Does this appear to be organic, or are there signs of a contrived effort? Look for:
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, there is a good chance you are dealing with a bot or sock-puppet who has been deployed by a competitor.
Another tell-tale sign of black-hat sabotage is where the “unhappy client or customer” does, in fact, have a robust online presence — but also has a history of posting mostly negative reviews. This is exactly what it looks like: An agency has been hired to launch another corporate attack and is reusing its prior online profiles to do so. Examine these closely. Have many of them also reviewed the same companies in the past? What are the chances that the same three people are posting negative reviews to your wealth management fund and also happened to complain about the same plastic-surgery center a year ago?
Assemble a team
The team starts with your in-house people. For larger companies, be sure to include your in-house counsel, chief marketing officer, and appointed crisis manager in an emergency round-table. Do we suspect who this might be? Is there a strategic way of snuffing this out without recruiting outside resources?
Do not react
Knee-jerk reactions almost never work out. Like a good chess player, you need to analyze the terrain and think a few moves ahead before acting. And it’s three-dimensional chess occupying both legal, digital and crisis dimensions.
Do not fight fire-with-fire
Once you’ve identified the culprit, you might be inclined to respond in kind and go negative yourself. The myriad reasons why this is a horrible idea are beyond the scope of this article. But trust me, and don’t do it. Drop me a line if you need to be talked off the ledge.
Do hire the right team
Your team should consist of lawyers, PR professionals and reputation management experts. Sometimes a well-crafted demand letter or TRO will resolve the problem. Or, it could make matters worse (remember the Streisand Effect). Your PR agency will need to begin putting together their crisis communications initiative and media blitz of positive content while the reputation management company looks for ways to take down the offending content and provide backup to the PR agency by lending some SEO juice to the new, positive articles once they are live. (It’s not enough to simply publish your corporate news. Every positive article that is published must be more powerful than even the weakest negative post you are seeking to remove from page one of Google’s search results — and you will need at least ten of these in order to push the negative content to page two. (No one visits page two, so pushing it there is tantamount to removal)).
Rely on your advisors, but be sure to decide for yourself
Remember the old maxim, that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well, the same is all too often true of law firms. They have one tool in their toolbelt: sue. So, they are likely to advise exactly that. But again, the Streisand Effect … The PR agency will want to launch a positive PR campaign. But this can bring unwanted attention to your company by journalists who are likely to exacerbate the negative news you are seeking to bury. And, reputation management firms typically post content that is unsightly and nonsensical in an inartful attempt to simply “push down” the negative without much thought about what will replace it. So, you will need to find the right balance between these disparate tactics.
Force your advisors to collaborate and problem-solve
You need to get them in the same room to problem-solve, along with you and your internal team. They are each an expert in their respective domains, but you are the expert in your company, your brand, your vision and your competition. It is likely that the best solution is going to be a hybrid of PR, Legal, Reputation Management & Crisis Communications. Each of these professionals may have difficulty thinking outside their lane. However, if you’ve hired wisely, they will quickly adjust to collaborate and conspire in your favor.
Like corporate espionage, reputational attacks are unfortunately becoming another illicit tool of the trade in several industries, including in capital markets, healthcare, and more recently, blockchain platforms and cryptocurrency marketing.
Companies would be wise to monitor the digital landscape consistently and assemble a response team to deal with whatever comes. The old crisis management playbooks have shorter and shorter shelf lives and are no longer one-size-fits-all solutions. As such, navigating the new threats that emerge will require a bleeding-edge, bespoke approach to problem-solving — one that spans the chasm between PR strategy, reputation management savvy and litigation prowess.