Fighting Online Brand Sabotage 101

Brand Sabotage May Warrant Ninja Tactics

Complaint websites such as Yelp, Glassdoor and Ripoff Report – that empower actual and imaginary customers or employees to anonymously post their accurate or bogus comments online – have created new brand-related challenges and opportunities for their corporate targets.

Thanks to search engines and social media, anyone with a computer and a personal agenda can now inflict substantial, long-term damage to the reputations of institutions that may or may not be deserving of their viral sabotage. It’s become a dangerous and foreign world for CMOs, PR heads and others charged with protection of their company’s brand; especially for small and mid-sized companies lacking the sophistication or deep pockets to mount a serious defensive strategy.

At the risk of oversimplification, here are a few down & dirty street-fighter tactics that should be on the do-it-yourself checklist of every company that’s a real or potential target of brand saboteurs:

Keep Your Eyes Open – This advice appears rudimentary, but many companies don’t bother to stay on top of online content.  At the very least, all companies should use Google Alerts to keep track of what’s being said about them online. This service is free, but does not provide a comprehensive view of everything that’s being said. There are scores of sophisticated social media monitoring solutions, tailored to meet your budget and level of interest. Here’s a list of them.

Take the High Road First – If your company has made mistakes or fallen short of expectations, it’s best to man up quickly. If there’s a way to respond directly to a negative post, then admit your error, offer to make amends, and follow through on any promises you make. Negative posts are opportunities to showcase your company’s integrity and to build goodwill.

However…if it becomes clear that an employee, customer or competitor is using social media primarily to inflict brand damage, it’s appropriate to protect your company in a far more aggressive manner. The basic ninja tactics and rules involve:

Hit and Run – At the risk of being labeled a “troll” by the strange subculture of people whose hobbies include trashing companies online, it’s worth the effort for your company to fight fire with fire, by anonymously posting contrary opinion and evidence, on a selective basis, to discredit the brand saboteurs. If your defensive post is well-crafted (which means it’s not totally obvious that it was written by someone from your company), readers will conclude that the saboteur may not be correct, or at least that there is a difference of opinion.

Avoid Fistfights – If you employ anonymous hit and run tactics, never go toe-to-toe online with saboteurs by responding to their follow-up posts (where they will accuse you of being a shill for the company.) If you engage with them, your original post will lose its credibility, you’ll give them additional opportunities to trash your brand, and it will attract additional attention. If you can’t maintain your discipline, then don’t use hit and run tactics.

Call In The Cavalry – The odds are, if you’re running a successful business, that you have plenty of satisfied employees and customers. The problem is that brand terrorists are always more motivated to trash your brand than your brand ambassadors are likely to praise it. The solution is simple: swallow your pride, and ask for help from your fan base. Don’t tell them what to say, but do provide them with the specific information (or send a page link) they will need to post their positive opinions where it will have the greatest impact. Solicit at least one positive post every month, and don’t forget to thank those who take the time to help you.

Become Transparent – In a world driven by search engines, no news is longer good news; in fact, no news is a brand liability when you are the target of a brand saboteur. The most effective way to reduce and offset brand sabotage is to consistently generate online content that positions your company in a positive manner. This does not simply mean pumping out a press release every time your company introduces a product, wins an industry award, or appoints a new vice president. The content with the greatest value – both in terms of viral shelf life and marketing impact – provides insight into your firm’s intellectual capital…so that target audiences have a clear understanding of your company’s value proposition.

Pull Out the Legal Saber – If the damage caused by brand saboteurs is substantial and consistent, your company should consider legal means as a last resort. This can be expensive, but some companies have succeeded in neutering false and defamatory posts by first filing a lawsuit against the author of the post (not against the website or search engine); if successful in that suit, obtaining a court order related to the offending post; then presenting that court order to Google…which typically will honor the court order by removing the webpage with the offending post from its search index. Although this legal tactic will not remove the post from Ripoff Report, Yelp or Glassdoor, the post will no longer appear in Google search results, which is a significant damage control victory.

Many companies will continue to do little or nothing to prepare for online brand sabotage, on the assumption that it’s unlikely to ever happen to them. Like the classic Fram Oil Filter commercial, they can pay a little now, or pay a much bigger price later.  But there’s a growing list of CEOs who regret having rolled the dice with their company’s reputation at stake.

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