Geraldine Proudler, Olswang: Don't dither in a digital crisis

Protect clients' reputations online by being ready to issue statements at a moment's notice.

Geraldine Proudler, Olswang: Don't dither in a digital crisis
Geraldine Proudler, Olswang: Don't dither in a digital crisis

The use of injunctions in the digital age has been in the spotlight recently. A number of celebrities have been victims of a spectacular Twitter backlash. But the role of lawyers in protecting the online reputation of companies is usually far more subtle than obtaining injunctions.

Lawyers will often be able to tone down or prevent publication of defamatory material published in the mainstream press - mainly because journalists usually give advance notice of any defamatory allegations.

Online reputation management requires a different approach. Lawyers must work with PR advisers and social media monitoring experts to identify the source of the allegations, the pattern of re-publication and the key influencers, and then decide where to focus their attention. An 'all guns blazing' barrage of legal letters to websites and internet service providers will rarely be effective if there is a real story to tell. Lawyers must know when to act and when to do absolutely nothing - a question of judgement based on experience, not legal principles.

Lawyers can play an important role in devising a strategy to prevent or repair damage to online reputation. For example, if an allegation of corruption appears on 20 websites, it may be that some postings on key sites that appear high in the search rankings, such as newspaper sites, can be removed without fear of a backlash. Although libel and privacy laws attract all the headlines, other laws such as copyright, data protection and advertising regulations can often be useful legal tools to remove unlawful material in these situations. However, more subtle PR and SEO techniques may be required for some of the blogs and discussion forums that have picked up the story.

The key in these situations is to ensure co-ordination, which means the lawyers and the PR advisers (both in-house and external) must be on the same page and have a good working relationship.

Much of the focus in digital crisis situations is on whether the publication of damaging material on the internet can be contained while the news is still fresh. However, a decision to ride out the storm while the news is breaking does not mean that it might not be appropriate to take legal action once the story has died down and the news agenda has moved on.

Website operators and news organisations are far more willing to correct their archives - which still appear on search engine results - than to correct material they have just published. Such an approach carries less risk of a backlash, can set down a marker for the future, and can begin to repair the damage caused by the long tail of the internet.

From a lawyer's perspective, the other key aspect of protecting online reputation is to have an effective digital communications network. Through this network, corrective statements can be communicated quickly in a way that will reach key influencers and be picked up by search engines. This requires careful planning as part of an overall digital crisis management strategy.

When a digital crisis strikes, there is rarely time to convene a meeting or conference call with the CEO, the communications director, the head of IT and an in-house lawyer to decide how to respond and which external advisers to instruct. The damage may already have been done by that stage. Speed of reaction and sound judgement based on experience are therefore critical. It helps enormously to have a ready-made crisis team that understands the digital space and has authority to react at short notice.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

How can a corporate website become a media channel?

The corporate website can be a key channel for communicating messages, particularly in crisis situations when journalists and those affected by the crisis will be looking for a definitive response. Social media channels such as Twitter can be used to direct traffic to the more controlled environment of the corporate website.

What is the most memorable digital PR activity in the past six months?

T-Mobile's wedding clip video was a genial piece of digital marketing, achieving more than 22 million views on YouTube. It's a great example of the power of viral video to get a message out quickly. If done well, video can be very powerful.

Geraldine Proudler is head of reputation at Olswang

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