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Industry Insight

Reputation Management - Do unto Others

I believe that last week’s Facebook PR slime-

By Elizabeth Gooding
Published: May 16, 2011

I believe that last week’s Facebook PR slime-fest was, sadly, not so much unusual as merely large-scale and clumsily executed.  Facebook has admitted to engaging public relations firm Burson-Marsteller  to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers. (Business Insider gives a pretty good overview of the story as it evolved.)  Ironically, Facebook’s angle was to urge reporters to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Really Facebook? Trying to shine a light on privacy concerns?

Needless to say, this has blown up in Facebook’s, well, face. I’m hoping that Facebook learned something from this and I’m certain that we can:

  1. There are people in business with absolutely no moral compass.

  2. Your competition may spread rumors about you.

  3. Social media allows those rumors to spread like wildfire.

The moral compass

On television and in real life there are people who will lie, cheat, steal (and more) to get ahead – people with no moral compass at all. Most people’s moral compass is just a little bit off of true North and can be drawn further astray by the magnet of personal self-interest. I have been lucky to know people who do the right thing regardless of self-interest, like the blogger who turned down Burson-Marsteller’s offer to advance his career by trashing Google and instead posted the damning emails that they had sent him. As business professionals, we hope to deal with honest people, but need to prepare ourselves for those who are opportunistically or pathologically dishonest.

The rumor mill

Facebook is not the first company to try to dig up dirt on their competition or simply insinuate that dirt is there through a completely unfounded rumor. Once something gets repeated enough it starts to have the ring of truth or at least to cause some doubt of the truth --think about President Obama and the Birthers. I have experienced PSPs who will say that their competition is losing business, losing employees or having quality problems – particularly in the midst of an RFP process. Usually when someone speaks disparagingly about their competition it just makes them look defensive and basically, bad. These days your competition has many ways to start the rumors indirectly via social media.

Social media wildfire

Mark Twain once said “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Fast-forward to the Internet age and a lie can circumnavigate the globe several times before the truth can slide into flip flops. And, according to Amanda Laird of CNW Group “nothing can outlive a bedbug like an online rumor.” This can happen to you and you need to be prepared.

Reputation management is an evolving field that recognizes that personal reputations and corporate brands are valuable assets to be guarded and maintained. It’s a tricky business to know whether to tackle rumors head on, look for the source and/or pursue legal action. This is becoming as major an issue for companies as marketing or PR and there are firms who specialize in this area for good reason – it’s complicated and mistakes are very public. I’ve included links to a few sources within this post and will leave you with a few high-level suggestions for getting started.

  1. Set up systems to monitor social media chatter and customer feedback about your company (there may be more than you think).

  2. Encourage all of your employees to report any stories or rumor they encounter (decentralize information gathering).

  3. Give employees guidelines for responding to specific issues (such as customer complaints) online. These guidelines may be as simple as escalating to a manager or may include specific parameters of what they can do to satisfy and unhappy customer.

  4. Centralize responsibility for development of response strategy (and for response to any trending issues.)

  5. Operate your company in an ethical way and let your employees know that rumor mongering will not be tolerated. A strong brand starts with trust and it’s a hard trait to fake.

If your company has any aspirations toward helping other companies with social media marketing, or actively marketing your own firm through social media channels, you should partner with an experienced reputation management expert and consider investing in monitoring tools. A brand is a terrible thing to waste.

The Facebook story is continuing to unfold and it will be interesting to see how Google responds. Facebook had a dicey "trust score" to begin with so, unless Google takes action it may not have much impact beyond May 2011. Then there's Burson-Marsteller who violated so many aspects of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) code of ethics with this fiasco that it may be hard for PRSA not to take action - although they are somewhat toothless these days. Burson-Marsteller, as the hired gun, is likely to take most of the heat giving Facebook the opportunity to claim ignorance. Maybe they'll fall on their sword - maybe not. It would make a good episode for a mini-series I'm sure.  Although, if you already watch Gossip Girl, this whole scenario may sound eerily familiar.  XOXO.



By peter morrissey on May 16, 2011

I learned this from a nun. Whenver you say anything it should be --the truth, necessary and kind. I cannot believe the practice attributed to Burson is accepted at that firm (they are a very good, ethical company). I hope this is an isolated case and the work of a renegade who missed the above lesson in ethics.


By Elixir Interactive on May 16, 2011

Elizabeth, I read that story with little surprise. It happens every day and ironically Google has become the most efficient and effective weapon of the unethical and unscrupulous competitor. Its easy to trash somebody on Google with deadly efficency. Its easy to buy rubbish links for very little which help the lies to rank. What I found the most disturbing is the PR agency who took on the the job. Facebook are ruthless so are Google but the PR agency had the most to lose here. What ethical company would touch them now.


By Jenkins on May 17, 2011

Yep, as an online business, social websites can both help your business greatly and bring it to the ground. "Spread like wildfire" is the perfect comparison, because with only one negative comment about you, your whole business reputation can take a huge plunge in the murky depths of the internet and never recover. You can try using reputation management services to either prevent this from happening, or to recover from such an attack. The thing with negative comments is, once they take over the front page of results, people won't go around the internet to look at all the positive comments your company might have gotten. They take the negative comment as fact, and you lose clients.


By Rob Finances on Mar 04, 2012

Anybody who needs to sort out his or hers internet reputation should do the homework first. Reputation.com has more scam reports in ripoffreport and scaminformer than any other company they supposetly work for. A reputation company which cannot sort its own scam and fraud reports out is probably not the first choice when it comes to be trusted to help with positive information of a client. Having recently 'gained' millions of dollars – reputation.com will only change its name again (as done before) and walk away with the money. Michael Fertik is well known for failed Internet startups and this one will just be another one added to the list. There are companies in the field of reputation management who can actually help and easily be researched – the ones which are not mentioned in scam reports or ripoff reports are the ones to go for. Feel sorry for decent people being taken for a ride, incl. the Vice Chairman –


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