As I recently wrote in Taking Control of Your Online Reputation Part I: Internal Steps , there are many ways for businesses to proactively bolster their online reputations. Doing great work, using social media effectively, creating meaningful content and reaching out to the media can all serve to build a rock-solid online reputation.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you build your reputation, there are going to be people who will try to tear you down. They could be disgruntled former employees, dissatisfied customers, online reviewers and bloggers or even your competitors.
What can you do to protect yourself and your business from these online onslaughts?
There is no magic wand that will make all of the negative comments go away, but there are practices and procedures that will help you to minimize the damage.
Step 1: Get Yourself Some Listening Tools
The only way to truly protect your reputation is to know what is being said about you or your brand (and who is saying it). Negative statements, lies, rumors can spread in an instant. The longer you wait to deal with these comments, the more damage will be done.
Fortunately, there are many tools out there that will help you to monitor what is being said about your brand, your executives, your products and your employees.
The most basic listening tool of all is an Internet search. If you’ve never monitored brand sentiment, simply search your company name and see what comes up. Google’s advanced search helps you see what’s being said in the news and in blogs.
To get notifications sent to you by e-mail, set up Google Alerts  for your company name, executives’ names and for product names. Google Alerts sends you a notification when you have been mentioned in articles, blogs, etc.
If you are a major brand, need more sophisticated monitoring and have the budget to pay for it, you can get extremely detailed and informative results that not only show where you’ve been mentioned, but give you valuable data on brand sentiment. Some of the leading tools include Cision , Radian6 , and IBM Cognos® Consumer Insight (CCI).
Step 2: Take a Deep Breath Before You React
Nobody likes to be criticized. If you are in business, though, it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen often. How you react to such criticism can be the difference between a meaningless annoyance and a full-blown crisis.
The key here is to keep a cool head and analyze the situation. While there is no single formula, here are a few things to think about before reacting:
- Are the negative statements true? If so, deal with the issue. Social media provides tremendous customer service tools. Acknowledge your fault and spell out how you will rectify the situation. When possible, take the conversation offline. If the issue has criminal or civil implications, check with your attorney before taking any action.
- Who is the source of the negative comments? This is hugely important.
- If it is one unhappy customer and you have dozens of glowing testimonials or reviews, it may be better just to ignore it.
- If it is an industry journalist or blogger, then it is important to engage him/her. Show your respect. See if you can find a way to change their mind. If you have gotten positive reviews from other industry journalists or bloggers, those can outweigh one of two negative statements.
- If it is a disgruntled former employee, then that statement can be overwhelmed by positive reviews from employees.
- Are the statements libelous? Some people approach social media as the Wild West, where rules and laws don’t apply. The fact is – laws do apply. If the attack on you or your company is libelous, take action. Think about sending a cease and desist letter. Often, this is enough to get the offending posts or comments removed.
Step 3: Be Civil
There is a reason why they call it social media. The Web is a place where communities are created, where conversations take place and where relationships are established. As in any community or relationship, there will be disputes. Handle them professionally, civilly, with grace and even with humor.
This will humanize you and your company and only serve to establish you as positive member of the Web community.
Step 4: Learn from the Experience
Conversations on the Web are always evolving. As in any crisis situation, try to learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to improve the way you do business. If there were complaints about your products, listen to them and fix the problem. If there were complaints about your services or your employees, take those complaints to heart.
Think of social media as a massive focus group. Criticism can be very healthy for a business owner. It can provide a wake-up call and it can be a great test of your customer service, your flexibility and your leadership.
Reputation  Photo via Shutterstock