Online defamation involving false and malicious claims is a growing concern for companies, nonprofits and individuals. It is a good time to learn some karate moves to fight back.
“In the age of digital Darwinism, we are now guilty until proven innocent,” warns Sameer Somal of Blue Ocean Global Technology, who offers online reputation management advice to attorneys and corporate clients. “Internet defamation lawsuits are on the rise. Even if someone is innocent, they still may appear guilty online. If negative results appear for an attorney or client, their online reputation can quickly damage their offline reputation – and affect their life.”
Social media is a breeding ground for inflammatory statements, often made in the heat of the moment. Some of those statements could equate to online defamation, regardless how the claim is couched. For example, saying “I believe” in front of a statement that someone embezzled money from a company or a man abused a coworker is not a defense if the claim is unfounded.
Media outlets or channels could be on the hook if they fail to remove defamatory statements in the comment threads of their stories. You may intentionally or unintentionally defame someone or some organization in comments you make on social media.
Somal advises that everyone needs to be alert to online defamation, whether it is directed at you or comes from you.
Online reputation management is a process involving monitoring, building and repairing digital content, Somal explains. “The most agile firms are listening closer, making better resource allocations and investing in stronger relationships with strategic partners and clients.”
Businesses, nonprofits and public agencies should routinely monitor what’s being said about them online – in social media, consumer reviews and news stories. Material inaccuracies, false claims, offensive images and fake reviews should be addressed. The best approach, Somal says, is a direct approach – contact the source of the material and ask to correct or to remove the offending content. Be prepared to show why the content is inaccurate, false or defamatory.
Not everything bad said about you online constitutes defamation. Each case is fact-specific. Failing to respond to negative comments, especially if the comments are erroneous, misleading or defamatory, encourages others to further support or confirm the negative reputation, Somal says. Search engine algorithms, he adds, tend to favor negative reviews and unflattering commentary. Increasingly, snarky articles are promoted by their publishers on social media platforms and aimed at target audiences.
Before declaring content defamatory, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney familiar with libel and slander statutes, which can vary from state to state. If content rises to the level of defamation, you – or your attorney – can threaten to sue, which can be powerful motivation to withdraw online material.
Legal coverage can involve inflammatory statements in filings and courtroom testimony. News reporters are likely to include them in their stories. In this situation, you need to make sure reporters provide balanced coverage and include your side of the story, which requires talking to them to reinforce your own story.
On legal matters that attract continuous news coverage or attention on social media, you should consider a strategy of suppressing negative coverage in Google searches by publishing other, more reputation-friendly stories. Fluff won’t do the trick, but stories about philanthropy, new investments or innovations can earn positive coverage that can fill up the first page or two of Google searches. The content that you hoped would disappear remains buried on subsequent Google search results pages. Critics can still find it and persistent trolls can continue to take their shots, but you are proactively improving your reputation.
Changing the narrative isn’t the same as erasing all memory of an embarrassing incident or awkward legal case. One powerful way to change the narrative is to address head-on the source of controversy and protracted negative commentary. Change the headline by changing the story. Admit wrongdoing. Settle a legal matter. Take responsibility for an incident, even if it isn’t your fault. This form of reputation repair is not always comfortable, but it can yield longer-term relief from the constant headache of criticism.