Repairing Your Online Reputation

In spite of your efforts to build a positive reaction - and sometimes, because of those efforts - there will be incidents where your brand is attacked in a blog, forum, or social network.

Case Study: Apple Computers

Apple caught a lot of flack online when it reduced the price of its iPhone after hundreds of thousands of consumers had already purchased the item at a significantly higher price. Even its most ardent fans were incensed, and it sparked a storm across the internet and traditional media.

Apple has regularly discounted its merchandise in the past. Typically, before a new version of one of their products comes out, or even a version with a significant improvements (larger drive, faster processor, spiffy new features) the old version is deeply discounted to clear out the old stock, without remark.

But in this case, the price cut came very soon after the product was originally released, and cell-phone consumers are less accustomed to this pricing practice than computer users (who have come to accept that there will be something cooler, faster, and cheaper available six months after they buy the latest and greatest model).

Within 24 hours, the company took action: there was an open letter from the CEO on the site, announcing a $100 store credit for customers who purchased the iPhone at a higher price. It explained the reason for the sudden price-drop, (obliquely) conceded that it had failed to consider the effect on "early" customers, apologized, and promised to do their best "to live up to your high expectations."

From a reputation standpoint, it is believed that this quick reaction and the sincerity of a public apology saved the company from what could have been a catastrophic reputation crisis. The word of the offer and the CEO's letter spread across the forums, and previously-angry individuals went back to evangelizing the company's products again.

It's also noted that the customers who rush to buy products, especially computer and electronic products, are a valuable commodity: they tend to spend more than others, have greater influence as early adopters, and in Apple's case, they tend to be the most devoted customers who evangelize on the company's behalf. Irritating them could be devastating.

From a performance perspective, the company's profits increased by 67% in the following quarter, the stock price continued on an upward trend, and the company sold an additional 1.4 million iPhones.

EN: the author doesn't mention the concept of "service recovery" - but I think it applies: a company that makes an error, then takes swift action to correct it, often builds greater customer loyalty and consumer confidence than one who has never done anything wrong, as their action is proof positive that the company will rectify problems in the future.

The cause of Reputation Attacks

A customer service misstep is inevitable: if may be a major oversight, such as Apple's failure to consider what a price reduction would be for previous buyers, or it may be a single disgruntled individual who feels they received poor service and chooses to express their complaint to their online friends rather than complaining to the company.

In some instance, it may have been a relatively innocuous remark at first, until others chimed in with similar experiences. In others, it may be an attempt by a competitor to undermine your reputation.

Sidebar: Proactive Defense

One method of proactive defense is providing a convenient online method of submitting feedback. The easier you make it to complain to you, the more people will do so rather than complaining to someone else in a public forum.

It's also important to have a recovery plan in place before an incident occurs, rather than waiting for something to happen before deciding how to react. A timely response is essential, as the problem will grow as you're thinking about how to react - and meanwhile, you'll give the impression that you're either ignorant or uncaring.

First Steps When Your Reputation Is Attacked

When you discover an attack, don't panic or react rashly. Your response will need to be timely, but it should be well-planned. Having a detailed response plan, in advance, can expedite the process. Lacking that, you'll need to go through a few steps to deliver an effective response.

First, check your facts. Some remarks may be exaggerated or fabricated, some may be entirely warranted. Most detractors have a reason for being upset, and you should assess its validity before accepting it as entirely true or dismissing it as entirely false.

Consider the potential for damage: if it's a single comment on a personal blog (that is not an influential venue, or even widely read), it may not require an immediate response - but keep an eye on it for a while to see if it catches fire. Conversely, a multipage forum thread with many contributors merits a prompt response. In addition to the site where you found a comment, determine if it has spread to other sites.

Also, seek advice from stakeholders. The nature of the remark may pertain to customer service, manufacturing, billing, etc. Also, consult PR and legal. The key here is to solicit input and advice - do not give up ownership of the response or let someone else take on the task of writing it. Get their input, but keep the authority fo answering in your own hands.

Also before responding, do a quick check to see what you can find out about the author: not all critics are created equal, as they have differing levels of influence. A few categorizations:

Responding to a Legitimate Attack

When an attach is a legitimate critique from a source that merits a response (not a kook or a troll), and when it has a large audience or the potential to spread from its original source, a response is warranted. The author suggests a five-step process for responding (though it's more like "five tips" than a procedure):

Step 1: Make a Response from the Top

Response to a detraction should come from a high level - the CEO, or a ranking executive - who speaks in a human voice (specifically, bereft of arrogance).

A response attributed to PR, marketing, or legal will do more harm than good - most people recognize these roles, and will assume (and rightly so) that they really don't care about the person who complained, except that they want him to shut up and go away.

Step 2: Admit Mistakes and Apologize

Do not be overly defensive. If there's a problem, own up to it and take responsibility. If there's a misinterpretation, it is your fault for failing to be sufficiently clear in the original communication. A good pattern to follow is "here's what we know ... and here's what we intend to do"

Step 3: Host the Conversation

Where possible, get your detractors to come into your territory. Do not try to work out a solution in the comments section of a dozen different blogs. Instead, redirect them to a central source that is under your control.

You can offer an e-mail address or phone number, provide a link to a response on your own site, launch a crisis blog, etc. This will give you control over the venue, and it will also give you a sense of the scope of the problem: more people that just the author will click through, and the information will probably be republished on other blogs where the problems have surfaced, including some you may have missed.

Not only does this provide an indication that you are being proactive, but it "contracts" a problem - instead of branching out into more and more venues, the detractors from various venues all converge on your site. You can also retire the site when the time comes, which helps the scar to fade.

Step 4: Seek Resolution

Ultimately, your efforts should be focused on seeking a resolution to the root problem, not just stifling the conversation.

In some instances, your response itself will resolve the issue - the facts that you present will tell the whole story, helping people to understand your side, and putting the matter to rest in their minds.

In other instances, such as the iPhone debacle, you may have to take steps to provide a satisfactory resolution to a legitimate complaint. It may cost your company money in the short-run - but in the long run, preserving your reputation and demonstrating a willingness to work through disputes will be worth far more than the cost of a settlement.

Note that your resolution should be balanced. In order to appease those who complain, it cannot be a mere token effort - but if you are too lavish in your restitution, you will become a target for mercenary bloggers.

Step 5: Change From a Detractor to an Evangelist

Ultimately, your goal is to win the favor of a person who was once a detractor. In many cases, a "service recovery" can make a customer more loyal to your company than one who has never experienced a problem at all, and they can often become evangelists.

In general, a person who legitimately complains is a person who had a high enough opinion of you to feel disappointed, and you're working to regain the confidence that you lost.

Sidebar: Four Bad Ideas

Responding to False Attacks

In some instances, rumors spread as a result of public misinformation. If it's a legitimate mistake, you can generally dismiss it with a quick announcement that identifies it as such. If misinformation is published by reliable sources, they are generally quick to inform their audience of the misinformation (to maintain their own reliability). These same trusted sources can be helpful in spreading the word when there is misinformation in various smaller venues.

The author indicates that 94% of blog authors will remove, edit, or correct a mistake when they are informed of the correct information from a reliable source. Your first response should be a private communication to the author with the correct information, and firmly request a retraction (and possibly an apology).

Where possible, you should also track down others who have been exposed to the misinformation. You may be able to detect this from blog comments, or a list of "people who have visited this page" where such is provided.

The preferred method of making contact is e-mail. If that's not possible, you may be able to post a comment to the conversation. If those attempts fail, you may be able to dig up the phone number of the original source.

If you follow this procedure, there should be very few instances in which it will be necessary to invoke your legal counsel to rectify the situation.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Responding to an attack is akin to first aid: it stops the bleeding, but does not repair the damage. The Internet has a long memory, and people may stumble across the original complain without seeing your response. Even if it has been retracted, it may be archived, or republished incompletely in other sources. You still have a few steps to address the residue.

Primarily, look for a retraction in the original articles, preferably within the same page, such that any reader who comes across it later will see the response. If not, you may contact the author and explain your concerns, and ask for their help in restoring your reputation - it's entirely reasonable. You may also need to do this in other sources that repeated or quoted the original.

Asking someone to modify their page for your sake is a delicate matter, but when possible (specifically, when a detractor is willing to work with you), consider suggesting the following:

Asking to delete a page or blog post is crossing the line, and it's often not the best solution: search engines may keep a cached copy of the original page for quite a long time, and people who re-visit the blog may notice the post disappeared and be unaware of the resolution.

You can also publicize the solution to get your supporters to spread the word. If you have customers who love your company, they're often fond of spreading good news about you and helping to dispel rumors and misinformation. Some will do so without prompting, others will need a bit of guidance.

There are also a few Web sites and blogs that are dedicated to dispelling urban legends and net myths, or addressing misinformation of any kind. Often, you can contact them directly and solicit their help in dispelling the rumors (even if they were not aware of the rumors to begin with).

You can use your own blog to publicize the incident and tell "the whole story," such that people who might be searching for more information about a scandal they had heard about will find your information first. This will also serve as a model for your supporters to tell your side of the story as well.

Use Google as a monitor to determine how successful you have been in cleaning up the damage: when the search results on the scandal turn from negative to positive, you've done a solid job of cleaning up the mess. Manually submitting URLs of pages that tell how the issue was addressed or resolved will help speed the recovery process.

You may also need to get to work on creating good publicity to eclipse the negative news (which, once it's settled, is not news at all). The author suggests doing some digging to find good news to report, and possibly using a pay-per-post service to get bloggers to post a fresh round of reviews to their blogs. If there's nothing positive you can disclose, even neutral content can be used to displace the negative.

Anonymous Attacks

In some cases, individuals (especially malevolent ones) will create false personas from which to launch attacks, and abandon them rather than print retractions. You may be able to approach the ISP that hosts the item in question for assistance: in many instances, providing falsified information is a violation of the terms of service, and libel almost always is, so the ISP will often expunge the material.

Preventing Repeat Incidents

When an issue has been resolved, a certain level of sensitivity remains toward your persona. In the case of unwarranted attacks, even neutral parties will be suspicious of your detractors and their attacks will have less impact.

But in the case of legitimate complaints, repetition can be harmful to your reputation. A protracted series of screw-ups reflects poorly on you, and will eventually undermine confidence in your persona, even if you provide a satisfactory resolution to every complaint.

Primarily, you have to learn from your mistakes, such tat you don't make the same mistakes over and over. In the iPhone example, you can be sure that Apple will be well aware of the potential negative impact of cost-cuts in the future, and will do their best to avoid a repeat of that incident.

You can also leverage your response to the incident as an opportunity to better communicate the feedback channels, so that if something occurs in the future, customers are more likely to come to you rather than complain to the public.

In a few cases, companies have built consumer-advocacy sites in the wake of a PR disaster. These sites give customers (or anyone) the ability to become a part of the solution, or provide suggestions for the future, or just share their stories as customers. Such sites become destinations for users in the future, and can give you the opportunity to get an early warning of trouble in a forum that's already under your control. (In the case of a members-only forum, it even gives customers the ability to "publicly" complain behind closed doors.)

In the course of cleaning up the mess, you may have come in contact with the owners of a number of blogs where people go for news about your industry, products, or company. You can leverage these connections, and by carefully managing your relations with these bloggers, they can become you allies in the future - helping to identify attacks, head them off independently, and even help you defend yourself going forward.

Sidebar: Words to Live By

The author suggests three qualities you should keep in mind when dealing with attacks: