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Addressing the Onset of Online Defamation

Internet defamation is on the rise and corporations, nonprofits and individuals should be on alert that if it occurs there are steps to take to remove offensive material and ways to suppress the residue of negative coverage that can tarnish a reputation.

Internet defamation is on the rise and corporations, nonprofits and individuals should be on alert that if it occurs there are steps to take to remove offensive material and ways to suppress the residue of negative coverage that can tarnish a reputation.

 

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.

Sameer Somal  is the Chief Financial Officer at  Blue Ocean Global Technology  and  Blue Ocean Global Wealth . He is a CFA Charterholder, a CFP® professional, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst and an internet defamation subject matter expert witness. In collaboration with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, he authors and delivers CLE programs on reputation management, search engine optimization and ethics across legal communities nationally.

Sameer Somal is the Chief Financial Officer at Blue Ocean Global Technology and Blue Ocean Global Wealth. He is a CFA Charterholder, a CFP® professional, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst and an internet defamation subject matter expert witness. In collaboration with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, he authors and delivers CLE programs on reputation management, search engine optimization and ethics across legal communities nationally.

Online reputation management is a process involving monitoringbuilding 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.

 

Protecting a Reputation and the Walk to Redemption

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Most people concerned about their reputation don’t follow Taylor Swift’s example and write songs with titles like “I Did Something Bad.” Instead, most people try to figure out how to scrub social media sites and influence Google searches.

Whitewashing an online reputation has both physical and ethical limitations. Addressing a reputational issue head-on has a more durable and dependable life cycle. You are basically telling your own story, as Ms. Swift has done on her latest studio album titled, appropriately, “Reputation.”

Facing a rumor, allegation or documented exposé may be uncomfortable, but could be more rewarding than wishing the comments and innuendos would go away, which they won’t, even under an online pile of “good” news. A healthier and more reputation-friendly approach is to take charge of your own story.

This is a case of when a bold offense is the best defense. You can let a story drip you to death through court filings or information leaks. Or you can disrupt your opposition’s narrative with proactive communication.

Going on offense doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Bold offense is a strategic, not impulsive move that requires careful coordination with legal, financial or other key advisers. You may have to admit where you were wrong, insensitive, negligent or slow to act. 

Owning your mistake could be a small price to pay to earn the chance to tell your side of the story, earn some credibility and preserve a reputation. The admissions you make may be ones that you will make sooner or later in court or in a regulatory settlement. Waiting does little for your credibility and may further tarnish your reputation.

Telling your story doesn’t get you off the hook. But it will affect the arc of the conversation. You may introduce new facts or perspectives. Your admission may disarm critics. You may recommend something that takes the wind out of the sails of opponents. What’s important is that you make the conversation change course.

Reputation management isn’t a science or, for that matter, an art. Reputation management involves a candid analysis of a situation and identifying a proactive response. In an increasingly cynical and polarized world, protecting your reputation may take a really bold move.

Predictable or expected responses may tone down chirping, but not stop it. Hiding behind old, stale arguments – however justified those arguments may be – just perpetuates the critical chirping you want to escape. Ignoring the chirping is like throwing your hands up in the air. Trying to drown it out with louder chirping is like throwing a Hail Mary pass.

Protecting your reputation takes more than wearing a bullet-proof vest or trying to wave a wand to make bad news go poof. It usually requires a savvy, bold move that seizes the narrative from critics or pundits. Or as Ms. Swift expressed it in her song:

They never see it comin'
What I do next
This is how the world works

Reputations are precious, vulnerable things. People judge, but they also forgive. What they are less likely to do is forget a cover-up or a snow job.

When you do something bad, look for a path to redemption, not a secret passageway. Walking the path of redemption could be the best exercise for your reputation.