How to manage your digital reputation

“It takes many, many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad one to lose it”

Benjamin Franklin said that many, many years ago. It is now more true than ever but might be rephrased: only one bad review or social media post to lose it.

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.

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

Added to that any genuine comments or interests; reputation management is an area that any pro-active business can no longer ignore.
The threats can come from a variety of sources:

• allegations from competitors; or
• articles in the mainstream print media;
• adverse television or radio coverage;
• criticism – justified or not, by apparent customers or reviewers online.
The prevalence of different types of media means that “a one size fits all” approach to bad publicity; or a simple ignoring of such publications will no longer suffice.

Instead proper planning before the event 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 and maintained; and then followed through, can make an enormous difference.
Many businesses already have certain internal policies however policies with regard to: social media, crisis management; and communication and media handling are policies that can easily be missed but if followed through can help deal with an issue.

Crisis Management

The most important 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.
The advance 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; which 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.

Similar plans put in place recently have allowed for example a client of ours to deal with the fallout from one off issues leading to reporting in the national press; and preventing the broadcast of allegations on the BBC television.
We can help you put in place those sought of plans.

Before Publication

“There is no such thing as bad publicity”
Anyone who has ever said that 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 the traditional print and broadcast media.

OFCOM and other guidance means that often 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; as a client of ours recently knew would occur at the conclusion of an inquest into a death; 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:

1. Following through the plan, identify who will have responsibility for decision making; and contact with the media;
2. Ensure wherever possible that there is one single voice and point of contact for all inquiries and responses;
3. Communicate internally to all staff how they should respond if approached for any comment;
4. 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, generally a business is denying itself an obvious opportunity to respond to publicity; to seek to influence a publication, or at least secure some voice in an article which can then be built upon; or in the base case scenario to persuade an organisation its publication is flawed and not to publish, at least in that form.
The approach to be taken with each media outlet will vary. Their approaches vary significantly and history of dealing with such organisations help. We ourselves have dealt recently with, amongst others, the BBC; Channel 4; Channel 5; Daily Mirror; Sunday Mirror; Daily Telegraph; and the Daily Mail. Each business has a different appetite for risk and the right response is crucial.

How to Respond

Where possible response of some substance should be provided. Occasionally it is inadvisable until all facts are known if a critical piece of information is missing; but otherwise co-operation and providing information is worthwhile. Information can be provided on a confidential – not for publication basis; or on an open basis that the business asks to be published. Providing there is clarity in approach either of these can be worthwhile.

Generally 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 direct 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.

Even where publication cannot be restrained however, a positive open and frank response should be given.

After Publication

Once the cat is out of the bag then 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 as giving the answer to a business’s problems when attacked. The speed at which publication can be spread nowadays means the Courts, which can deliver Judgments and damages; 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

Nowadays with newspapers hosting articles on websites, publications can linger for a longer period of time. Equally those on websites; forums and social media are also available to view for a long 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. Generally it will be if properly managed as part of a co-ordinated strategy. Even whilst targeting a removal, the above strategies continue to apply. There are a variety of mechanisms for pursuing on-line publishers including revealing the identify of alleged apparently 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 & slander claims.