Ethics Center: Reputation Management

Reputation Crisis? What to Do, Part 4

Who knew it would come to this? In today’s social-media era, our reputation consists of what people say about us online. When friends, colleagues, and strangers rave about us—liking our posts, sharing our content, tweeting our exploits—then our reputations soar. But when people tear us down, either because of something we’ve done or because of the malicious words of others, then our reputations can implode, wrecking havoc on our lives.

In part 1 of this series, we showed how this damaging process played out in the case of financial advisor Glenn Neasham. In part 2, we described how to analyze the severity of an online reputation crisis, and then in part 3, we showed how to attempt a do-it-yourself (DIY) fix. In this final part of the series, we’d like to discuss how to hire an online reputation management (firm) when a DIY fix isn’t feasible.

In prior articles, we suggested that some reputation problems—say, having a couple negative reviews on Yelp—might not require fixing. But when bad reviews mount or when damaging content dominates your page-one search results, it’s time to assess your problem and initiate a fix. However, when you become the subject of hundreds or thousands of negative web pages, creating a drumbeat so deafening it threatens your livelihood, then it’s time hire an online reputation management (ORM) firm.

What’s an ORM company? It’s a professional-services provider that specializes in monitoring and responding to reputation problems that have gone viral. It does this by using its search-engine expertise (actions that promote and demote content on search engine results pages [SERPs]). Unlike so-called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies, ORM firms don’t primarily focus on getting your content on Google’s first page. They’re equally concerned with moving negative content off the first few pages, hopefully rendering it invisible to the public.

Sound reasonable? At first blush, yes. However, in practice, ORM firms have reputation issues themselves. Problem is, the industry is less than a decade old and lacks a formal credentialing process or code of ethics. Consequently, some firms have engaged in dubious business practices that benefit their bottom lines, more than their clients’.

According to experts, the industry’s ethics problems stem from abusive sales techniques, posting of fake product/service reviews, and the use of so-called Black Hat SEO techniques to account-management practices that penalize clients who try to cancel their ORM contracts. Here are some common issues:

  • Spamming companies who receive negative consumer reviews on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List. The ORM firms sift through a company’s reviews to uncover negative results, then send it e-mails suggesting its reputation is on the verge of destruction. Guess who can help?

  • Searching arrest records for mug shots, which the ORM firm publishes on web sites it controls or with whom it contracts, then contacting the defendant promising to take down the photo for $X. When the person or company pays the fee, the ORM firm moves the mug shot to another site and repeats the “offer.”

  • Hiring people from the developing world to write and post positive (though fake) reviews on consumer-review sites (AKA “astroturfing”).

  • Discouraging clients to cancel contracts through abusive “handcuffs”. For example, an ORM might arrange to own any web sites created for clients. If they try to cancel the project, they’ll lose control over their own sites. Then the ORM firm can take the sites down, allowing negative content to rise again.

  • Engaging in SEO techniques that violate Google’s ethical standards.

In short, claims Rosanna M. Fiske, a Wells Fargo PR executive and former chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, the ORM industry “‘cleans up’ clients’ online messes, while creating muck for the rest of us (PR practitioners). For those who value ethical communications and marketing practices, it’s not a pretty sight.”

For these reasons, it’s important to engage a “White-Hat” ORM firm, not a “Black Hat” one. The distinction is crucial. A “Black Hatter,” as suggested earlier, will often engage in unethical techniques that best case may not be sustainable and worst case may damage their clients. Getting removed from Google’s index is the nightmare scenario.

A dead giveaway of a “black hat” orientation is when a company fails to support Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, which promote the following principles:

  • Always create content that benefits users, not just games search engines. In other words, always create legitimate content with lots of useful information for users.

  • Don’t try to trick users into visiting your pages or staying on your pages.

  • Avoid dubious techniques designed to improve search-engine rankings. These include tactics such as producing “auto-generated” content that has no real meaning and serves no purpose other than to contain keywords; link schemes that attempt to manipulate SERP rankings; and cloaking techniques, which involve offering different content to site visitors as opposed to search engines.

There are many other ploys for “faking out” Google. However, the common theme is using tricks to promote a page in the rankings, rather than replacing negative content with high-quality positive information. Another giveaway: business practices that serve the ORM better than they serve the client. These include:

  • Assigning ownership of all content and websites in the program to the ORM firm. This can make post-project transitions difficult. 

  • Lack of transparency about business practices. Any refusal to fully disclose ORM tactics should be a huge red flag
  • Use of highly templated vs. customized solutions, which makes for more profitable engagements for the ORM firm and less effective results for clients.

  • Outsourcing of content development to India or other developing-world nations. This often results in poorly written web pages that ultimately harm the client.

Given these dangers, how should you structure your due diligence? Here are some tactics to implement before, during, and after your initial meeting with an ORM company.

 

Before the meeting:

 Do what you’d normally before hiring any vendor:

  • First, run a basic Google search to check out its online reputation.

  • Second, do a Better Business Bureau search to determine its BBB grade and complaint history.

  • Third, check various consumer-review and complaint sites to see what customers say about the company on the Internet. However, watch for negative reviews full of bad grammar and syntax. These may be coming from foreigners that ORM competitors hired to badmouth the firm.

  • Fourth, carefully read the firm’s website to see how it approaches an ORM engagement.

  • Finally, do Google and LinkedIn searches on the firm’s leaders and a WhoIs.com search to see who owns its web domain.

 

During the meeting:

  • Determine whether the firm is willing to listen to your story patiently or whether it’s more interested in touting its services.

  • Watch for unrealistic claims, especially if it promises to “take down” all negative content.

  • Verify that the firm adheres to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

  • Ask about the firm’s accountability practices. In other words, does it establish project objectives, set reasonable timeframes, and report results on a regular schedule?

  • Ask to see its case studies, including web sites the firm has created. Make sure those sites include legitimate information, not just SEO schemes. Beware any firm that seems unwilling to discuss its business practices in detail.

  • Probe the firm’s content development philosophy. Does it understand what real web content should be or does it merely view content as a ploy for gaming search engines.

  • Ask how the firm feels about astroturfing.  Any ORM firm that commissions fake reviews on your behalf is playing with fire.
  • Probe the firm’s transparency policy regarding changes it will make to your website. Will it ask permission first before executing those changes?
  • Determine how (and how often) the firm will communicate with you. What success benchmarks will it report on during your meetings? 

  • Determine how much and on what basis (project vs. retainer) you will compensate the firm. Make sure not to make any open-ended commitments.
  • Ask for a list of current and past clients. If an ORM is legitimate, it shouldn’t have a problem providing references. 

  • Confirm whether you will own all additional content and websites created as part of your project. 

     

After the meeting:

Once you’ve met the ORM firm’s personnel, weigh the pluses and minuses of working with the company and then summarize your “gut feel” about the people you’d be working with. If your bottom-line assessment is positive, then start calling references.

If all of the references pan out, then do one final thing: buy a background check on all of the firm’s principals. Given the importance of your project, this will be a sensible investment for all concerned.

By taking the above precautions, you’ll be on solid ground addressing your serious reputation problem. With any luck, in a matter of weeks, you’ll start seeing signs of improvement and in a few months, the online furor may die down. However, in cases of major reputation damage (think Glenn Neasham), it may take many months or even years before your reputation recovers fully (or even partially). Given the Internet’s unforgiving permanent memory, that will be a major victory.

For more information on reputation management, please visit the National Ethics Association’s Ethics Center. For more information on affordable errors and omissions insurance for low-risk financial advisors, visit E&OforLess.com.