Responding to Negative Publicity Online

In a previous article, I talked about online reputation management. I explained why it’s important to monitor your reputation online and how to do it. I also discussed what you should already be doing to manage your reputation. In this article, I’ll describe what you should do when the worst happens.

There is an old saying that any publicity is good publicity. Even the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie played into that belief; when Captain Jack Sparrow is told that he is the worst pirate someone has ever heard of, he quickly responds “But you HAVE heard of me.” Anyone who runs a business, however, knows that this is simply not true; bad publicity is bad publicity, and can cost a large company millions of dollars, to say nothing of goodwill.

The Internet comprises a flood of user-generated content from social sites, blogs, forums, and review sites such as Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Yahoo Local. If you read my previous article, you know what you need to do to monitor your reputation online. You’ve set up alerts for your company name, your important brand names, top people within your company, and maybe even a rival or two to keep an eye on the competition. You know that you need to monitor news stories, standard search results, significant sites and blogs in your field, and other areas.

What do you do if something negative comes up? Say a disgruntled customer had a bad experience with your company. It could be something like the finger in the chili rumor associated with Wendy’s (which turned out not to be true) or the trouble that Kryptonite locks had on its hands when one of its customers was able to unlock his Kryptonite lock with a pen. You’ve been monitoring your reputation, so you found out about this situation quickly; that’s the two-edged sword behind the fact that negative comments about a company tend to rise to the top of the SERPs very quickly.

The first thing you want to do is analyze the problem. What accusation is being leveled against you or your company? Who or what is making the charge? Is it believable? Is it legitimate? When Wendy’s was faced with the finger in the chili rumor, it began an investigation to discover whether the rumor was true, even making public offers of rewards for any information. What you do next depends on what your analysis turns up.

I’ve seen the process of correcting negative online publicity described in a number of ways. The most succinct involves three steps: monitor, optimize, and engage. If you’re going to use search engine optimization to help you fight negative publicity, you really need to have been using it all along. Specifically, when someone looks up your brand in the search results, you want them to find your sites.

In an article written for SEO-Space, Jody Nimetz notes that you should be “optimizing your main corporate site, any micro-sites and sub-domains, corporate blogs, press releases, articles as well as online properties such as employee blogs and partner sites.” That’s a lot of work, but you shouldn’t skimp on it. If you’ve already done this work, and you’re keeping up with it, you’ll be in a better position in the SERPs, for a longer time, than the negative item.

You might even consider taking out an ad to help you set the record straight. When millions of toys were recalled because they were finished in China with lead-contaminated paint, Mattel bought AdWords space for terms such as “lead paint toy” and “toy recall.” Clicking on those ads linked searchers to Mattel recall list and their public statements about the matter.

Sometimes, though, you can get more personal – in a good way. If the negative publicity is the result of a post by a blogger or a reporter, you can have a polite conversation with them to find out what happened. If they really did have a bad experience with your company, for example, and you offer to make amends – say, replace a broken product with a new one that functions perfectly – they’re likely to write about you again, this time in a much more positive light. It’s important that you follow through, of course.

If you can’t make amends in this way, you can at least try to see to it that readers of the blog hear your site of the story as well. In an article for Search Engine Guide, Bruce Clay recommends commenting on the blog post to set the record straight. It’s very important that you be as accurate in your version of the story as possible, acknowledging where the original blog post got it right as well as where it went wrong. This will give you more credibility and help earn the respect of readers. You can even leave a way for readers to contact you if they want more information.

If the negative publicity is serious enough and/or persistent enough, by all means you should address it on your own site. For many years, when the rumor was circulating that Procter and Gamble was giving a percentage of their profits to satanic organizations, P&G maintained a rebuttal on their web site. Today, with more recent rumors circulating around the company’s Iams pet food and the care given the dogs and cats they use for pet food testing, Procter and Gamble maintains a site dedicated to explaining how they care for their animals. The site is a good example of transparency in reporting; it even shows videos taken at the facilities and recommendations made as the result of unannounced visits to improve the animals’ well-being.

A smaller company can take matters into their own hands by posting a rebuttal of the original story on its own blog. You will need to give an honest, fair, and complete description of the situation. Think of it from a visitor’s point of view. If you already have a decent reputation and a web surfer stumbles upon the negative item, he’s going to wonder about your side of the story. That will lead him to your site. If it seems like a serious accusation, saying nothing at all about it is worse than not addressing it.

If the situation is serious enough, you might also look at getting some real press coverage. In an article for Search Engine Guide, Jennifer Laycock used the way that a small grocery store responded to a negative situation to illustrate some aspects of online reputation management. The local union was picketing the store because it wasn’t a union shop. The store, in turn, contacted local media – newspapers and TV stations – so they could tell their side of the story. “By properly working the news angle (we’re being picketed by people who have never worked for us) they managed to get favorable coverage in several local media outlets,” Laycock explained.

This kind of coverage gives you more credibility. Any company can buy an ad, but mainstream media is (usually) considered to be a little less biased. While you can contact many online news sites, you’ll also need to contact key bloggers that cover your industry, as well as related social media sites. Indeed, if you’ve made yourself a part of the online community already, those contacts and any goodwill you’ve built up will start to pay off now. “You’ll have a much easier time getting bloggers to cover your side of the story or having your response spread through social media sites if you are already viewed as a trusted member of the community,” Laycock notes.

Okay, so you’ve gone through and done everything you can think of to fix the problem and blunt the impact of the negative publicity you’ve received. You’re still seeing problems in the SERPs. What do you do?

Well, the first thing you should do is not panic. That means no lawsuits unless things have gotten so totally out of hand that breaking out the biggest guns is appropriate. Despite the frequency with which lawsuits are often filed in the US, and for apparently the flimsiest of reasons, it is rarely appropriate to sue. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t sue if you believe you are legally in the right. Rather, you should remember what it is exactly that you are trying to accomplish.

Referring back to Bruce Clay, remember that “The goal is to bury the story, not draw more attention to it. While the post might be temporarily contained to one rogue blogger, bringing in the lawyers is a great way to make a mountain out of a mole hill on a national and even global level.” That is the last thing you want.

The second thing you should do is be patient. Stories and rumors, especially ones that make others look bad, take time to die. The Proctor and Gamble satanic rumor, despite being repeatedly denied and disproved in detail (here is Snope’s take on it), has been circulating for more than two decades.

You almost certainly won’t have to wait two decades for a bad story about your company to stop circulating, especially if you are doing the other things I’ve suggested in this article and the previous one about your online reputation. In the meantime, keep monitoring your company and your brands in the SERPs to get a sense of the trends. This will help you to see if the situation is getting worse or dying a natural death.

The third thing you need to do is be persistent. Continue to monitor your reputation online, optimize your websites, and engage with social sites online. Continue to be active and a good member of the online community. With a game plan in place, and having survived a dose of negative publicity, you’ll know how to handle it next time so that you experience a minimum of damage. Good luck! 

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