NYT: Dealing With the Damage From Online Critics

As the power of the Internet grows, businesses small and large find themselves confounded by disenchanted employees, suppliers and competitors who seek fertile ground to air grievances online.

Armed with little more than a Web connection and a keyboard, these detractors can do everything from irritate, via a scathing review, to causing serious business problems by using message boards to reveal company secrets or spread rumors of unethical behavior. They may also start a gripe site or register a Web address in their target’s name.

“Anybody can write anything in the world, whether it’s true or not. It could be affecting my business right now,” Ms. Lambert, owning a gym she owns, Go Figure, in Westwood, Mass. said.

Business is not alone in such frustrations. Politicians, authors as well as other public and private individuals find themselves in the cross hairs of commentators emboldened by the anonymity of cyberspace. But such postings can do more than just irritate; financial damages can reach millions of dollars or shut down a business entirely.

Remedies vary by case and by state, but lawyers, Internet specialists and others counsel that the best course with may be to ignore irritating posts because trying to squelch a malcontent can have unintended consequences.

“Your reaction often, if you’re a small business, is to get angry and to fire off a letter,” said Barry Werbin, an intellectual property lawyer at Herrick, Feinstein in New York. “Some big companies do it. More often than not, the person who posts the gripe site can’t wait to get that letter and post it.”

Sometimes, Mr. Werbin added, “it can worsen the damage because it just fuels the fire.”

Assuming that the posting activity is not illegal or defamatory and truly damages a business rather than just an ego, there may be better ways to respond. Scurrilous opinions often appear on Web sites including Yahoo message boards, AOL and MySpace. Those sites may remove objectionable material if asked but are not legally required to do so. Even if they do remove it, the damage may already have been done. Besides, even if the comments are taken down, a determined whiner can find any number of other venues. Other online review sites, like Yelp or TripAdvisor, are particularly influential.

“New consumer opinion gets posted about every five seconds,” said Rob Crumpler, chief executive of Buzz Logic, which helps businesses identify influential bloggers.

Samantha DiGennaro, who runs her own strategic communications consulting firm in New York, says many companies either run scared from electronic media or fail to realize how quickly negative comments can jet around the Internet.

“People think, ‘It’s only on the Web. It’s not that important.’ But it’s almost more important than a newspaper or something in print,” she said. “Things live in perpetuity on the Web.”

Some large marketers may blog or respond anonymously. Ms. DiGennaro said appropriate responses were not one size fits all and must be tailored to the particular case. If something merits being addressed, she said, it can better be done in the name of the company rather than hiding behind anonymous postings.

On the technical front, a search engine optimization expert can tweak a site so that it moves a positive posting higher in an Internet search, tending to bury the negative one. Shailen Lodhia, vice president for sales at Submit Express, an optimization firm in Burbank, Calif., estimated results could take three months to a year, and monthly retainers could exceed $3,000.

The best defense is a good offense. Useful practices include registering personalized e-mail addresses as well as gripe domain names — not with the intention of using them but to prevent others doing so. Registering common misspellings as well as derogatory domain names is a good precaution and so is covering extensions like .biz and .org. Costs are minimal, some lower than $50 a year.

Companies that sell products or services should trademark their name to prevent others from using it as a domain name without authorization. Executives may find their only recourse is to sue if someone registers their name as a U.R.L. and uses it to defame them. Few companies thought to buy potentially negative domain names. Debra Condren, a business psychologist and career adviser, said the occasional negative comment could actually lend credibility to a company rather than tarnish it. She said people expected to see a range of opinions, and if they saw only positive ones on a company blog, for example, they might suspect that negative feedback was being censored. A range of opinions seems authentic.

Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, a member-generated ratings service where users report their positive or negative experiences with local contractors, said every company gets complaints at some time, but the way it responds can be more telling than the complaint itself.

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