Platt’s Perspective: Monitoring Your Online Reputation: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Imagine your reaction if your marketing director walked into your office on a Monday morning with a desperately worried look, closed the door, and said, “Tom, we’ve got a problem. A BIG problem.”

A few clicks of the mouse and strokes on the keyboard and you’re looking at a Web site that has multiple messages about your firm for any ‘net surfer to see: “Smith & Company sucks, don’t work with those jerks!”

Now imagine that the Web site was set up with the express intent of capturing negative comments about your firm – which now presents a central repository for any disgruntled present or former employee(s) and/or client(s) to pour out their feelings.

Is it fair? No. Is it legal? Yes. Well, for the most part. Internet security and privacy laws are woefully behind current advancements in technology, so there’s really nothing to prohibit online corporate bashing.

For years, IPA has shared insights on using the Internet to market your firm and recruit staff. The number of ways that the Internet can work in your favor is unlimited, and firms are discovering new methods all the time.

But the very qualities that make it great also create a dark side: openness, anonymity and instant global reach. You not only need to be aware of the risks, but also need to be proactively monitoring and managing them to protect your online reputation. As communities for disgruntled people increasingly populate the Internet, more and more firms encounter the presence of sites designed to encourage online venting by current and former staff and clients for anyone to see.

The S&Co. example above, while not a real firm, represents a clear and present danger. It’s been happening for years to corporations with sites such as www.disney-sucks.com, www.walmart-blows.com, www.discover-cardstinks.org and much worse.

An example that hits a little closer to home was the development of the Web site www.EYsucks.com, which went live last summer and is no longer an active site – a story in itself. The site was dedicated to pointing out unethical practices at Ernst & Young (E&Y). Press releases were frequently sent to news organizations to investigate allegations that surfaced on the [www.EYsucks.com] Web site.

Last summer, while writing about “Defense Domain Names,” a blogger noted E&Y recently purchased 209 different domain names to help protect itself from other attacks, covering multiple variations that combine “EY” or “Ernstandyoung” with other words that could be potentially negative to the firm.

Monitoring your firm’s reputation online is not just limited to Web sites aimed at your firm directly. Blog posts, Facebook posts, Tweets, comments in online articles, company review sites – all are mediums that can invite permanent negative press.

Some sites are specifically designed for people to vent, such as www.jobvent.com. Consider this comment posted by a staff person in an accounting firm shortly after tax season ended last year.

“The firm in some regards is good, and in others is terrible. First, the managers and staff are good competent people. However, the two managing partners are absolutely dreadful. One is grumpy, and the other has an over-inflated sense of accomplishment. There is no direction, no communication, no leadership, only thankless long hours working on client audits or taxes that are an absolute mess – which typically is the result of a partner not doing the job properly, and of course partners don’t get laid off.”

There are legitimate Web sites that invite users to review companies – positively or negatively – think Angie’s List or Yelp.com. It is always helpful to check these sites just to see what your clients are saying about you. Encourage loyal clients to share their positive experiences.

Or consider this rant, from an (obviously) disgruntled staff member in a posting that will be on the Internet forever.

[ABC Firm] is the place to be, if you accept the following conditions: I will cheat on my significant other and brag about it. I will pass blame on to others and throw people under the bus. I will sexually harass co-workers as I know [ABC Firm] will not fire me for this, and many managers and partners will slap me high five. I will disrespect and degrade all people below me simply because I am not smart but need to act as if I am better than you. I will brown nose the “in-crowd” so that I never have to do any real work, and I will therefore move up without actually deserving it. If you are able and willing to meet these conditions, then you will fit in perfectly at [ABC Firm]. You will be welcomed with open arms and a bottle of booze.

This is a serious risk management issue that firms need to address.

The processes for managing your firm’s reputation is similar to the processes for protecting against identity theft: minimize the risk, monitor your credit, and if a breach occurs take the appropriate action to recover.