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Companies Beware: Online Defamation Is Serious

Be alert, vigilant and responsive to criticism of your company, products and services -- it could hurt your bottom line.

Defending your business online can be a matter of survival. Companies that ignore damaging and often malicious attacks are taking a big risk. And the danger is growing as negative comments are increasingly being posted online in blogs, chat rooms, online industry forum boards and consumer protection and public service sites.

Even small and medium-size businesses are being attacked, not just the bigger, more obvious targets of consumer displeasure, such as large insurance companies and mortgage bankers. Online assaults and intentional misrepresentations of your company, products and corporate ethics can easily affect local and national consumer opinion if they are not addressed.

Some of them may be from customers who are genuinely upset -- perhaps with good reason -- but they may also be posted anonymously by competitors seeking to put you at a disadvantage or to cause your clients or potential partners to think again before finalizing a big deal. Other possible culprits: angry ex-employees, or even their family members and friends, who want to create doubts about your reputation. Whatever the source, damaging words can slow sales or raise questions that could be hard to erase.

To protect yourself, designate someone in your company to regularly monitor the large search engines and industry Web sites for references to your company, your products and key staffers. Also, consider using online surveillance services, such as Giga Alert or TruReputation, that will constantly monitor and automatically alert you by e-mail with indexed results based on keywords, such as names of your product lines, your company and your subsidiaries. You may even want to include the names of your competitors as search words just to keep tabs on what’s being said about them, too. That’s a legitimate form of business intelligence gathering.


Search engines, consumer protection Web sites, message boards and public service sites where complaints are often posted usually won’t remove an offending or defamatory post, even if it is patently false or, in your opinion, outrageous, without a court order. They have lots of legal immunity in the largely free world of the Internet. Open Web forums that don’t seek to influence content, such as corporate Web sites or union or advocacy sites, are immune from liability.

The best thing to do is attempt to track down online defamers through research. Try tactfully engaging them online, for instance, to learn more about who they are, who they may work for and the reason for their discontent. You may even threaten legal action against the individuals personally to persuade them to remove the posting. Sometimes an attack is posted surreptitiously by someone at a competing business, and you can send a legal notice to that business, too, if you show that the intent was malicious.

The chance of tracking down a defamatory poster who uses a pseudonym without a return e-mail address is fairly good if attempts are made quickly. Most Web sites and Internet service providers keep log files and e-mail access records for 30 to 90 days and will often comply with requests for basic information on where a post originated, even if they won’t remove it at your request.

Add your own posts on the same sites or blogs where offending posts appear. Identify yourself, and write tactfully and directly, using arguments and evidence to counter the attacks as well as offering examples of how highly customers value your products and services.


Another good practice is to periodically ask your best customers to report back to you on what they are seeing about you online. Loyal customers will appreciate being deputized to assist you.

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