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How to handle a blow to your digital reputation

Years ago, Benjamin Franklin said: “It takes many, many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” This statement is now more true than ever – so here's how to keep your digital reputation in check.
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The changing media environment leaves a company having to deal with a wide variety of publications; from the traditional print and broadcast media; to instant social media and dedicated review sites.

A business can therefore be subject to threats to its reputation. Indeed, a recent survey confirmed that 75 per cent of business leaders questioned thought that online reviews, comments and forum posts were important to the financial and reputational status of a business. And in the last year alone, 51 per cent of businesses had been affected by unsubstantiated online reviews or were targeted by trolls.

As such, reputation management is an area that any pro-active business can no longer ignore. Proper planning is imperative given the pressure upon a business to respond quickly and promptly when an incident occurs; and the benefits of being able to react before publication; or quickly after publication are enormous.

Pre-planning

Companies’ internal policies, if properly prepared, maintained and then followed through, can make an enormous difference, especially with regard to: social media, crisis management, communication and media handling.

Crisis management

The most important factor is dealing with a crisis and following through a plan at the start. A well prepared, thought out plan can either minimise any damage from publication, or even turn a publication into a positive going forward.

Such advanced planning is critical given that media outlets will demand an immediate comment from anyone in the organisation; and all too often hasty ill-thought out comments are made by one individual. This can then come to be portrayed as the view of the business, and in turn are damaging and set the business off on the wrong foot.

The plan needs to cover the role of frontline staff members, management and the role of outside advisers.

Before publication

Anyone who has ever said that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” has not considered the modern media environment. Dealing with adverse publicity before publication is by far the best approach; either to prevent it being published or to minimise its impact. Generally, this opportunity will only arise with traditional print and broadcast media.

Due to OFCOM and other available guidance, the business will usually be aware of adverse publicity before its publication. That can either come about because a business is at the centre of an event and knows it will be reported and that they will be presented badly, or alternatively because the business is approached for comment.

If a proper plan has been put in place then responding to these can be simple.

The following general rules are key:

  • Following through the plan identify who will have responsibility for decision making; and contact with the media;
  • Ensure wherever possible that there is one single voice and point of contact for all enquiries and responses;
  • Communicate internally to all staff how they should respond if approached for any comment; and 
  • Consider taking the initiative with a publication of your own; either independently or utilising the media outlet in question.

Doing much of that necessitates engaging with the media organisation contacting you. Traditionally many businesses adopted the “no comment” and slamming the door in the face of a journalist approach. Whilst occasionally declining to comment may be the right stance, a business is denying itself an obvious opportunity to respond to publicity and influence publication.

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The approach to be taken with each media outlet will vary.  

How to respond

It is inadvisable to respond until all facts are known – especially if a critical piece of information is missing – otherwise co-operation and providing information is worthwhile. Information can be provided on a confidential basis or on an open basis depending on what the business asks to be published. Providing there is clarity in the approach either of these can be worthwhile.

Broadcasters provide the OFCOM guidance, which in effect allows for a right of reply to avoid a party being unjustly treated. Traditional print media follow a similar approach and we would strongly advise taking the initiative in most scenarios and putting the businesses’ case forward directly to the publisher.

Can I stop this being published?

That is the question we are most commonly asked and unfortunately the answer generally is “no”. Whilst it can seem greatly unfair to a business on the end of malicious publications, more often than not the law gives preference to a right of free speech and will not grant injunctions to restrain publication. That is not to say that they are impossible. The celebrity use of the so-called super-injunction is well known. Whilst injunctions can therefore rarely be obtained they are worthy of consideration.

After publication

Once the cat is out of the bag, approaches must diverge; there is the strict legal approach of Letters of Claim where there are grounds for alleging defamation or otherwise and possible legal claims for damages; removal of posts; securing retractions, apologies etc that should be investigated and followed if appropriate.

Every bit as important though is the second approach, which is the ongoing media management implementing the businesses’ policies. Traditionally, lawyers have seen the courts giving the answer to a business’s problems when attacked. The speed at which publication can be spread nowadays means the courts can be too slow to avoid damage on their own.

An active media management; alongside traditional legal remedies will greatly improve the result.

Dealing with online publications

With newspapers hosting articles on websites, publications can linger for a longer period of time.  Consideration should be given to removing these to minimise the damage. Sometimes that can be seen as heavy handed and a judgement call must be made as to whether the publicity arising from the removal is worth suffering for removal. There are a variety of mechanisms for pursuing on-line publishers, including revealing the identify of alleged anonymous publishers. Once again, however, speed is of the essence.

Securing a retraction or an apology, publicising it and avoiding further publications is critical. Advice and specialist input in preparing for such eventualities, and then dealing with them when they occur, is the key to that. You are successful in your business because you understand it, deal with it and are the best people to provide that service. In almost no circumstance however is the business the best party to respond to and deal with defamation, criticism of a business and malicious publicity.

Daniel Jennings is a solicitor with Wright Hassall specialising in defamation libel and slander claims.

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