Recently, a story emerged of an unusual move that led to a critical post disappearing completely from the internet. Annabelle Narey, a poster on Mumsnet, saw a negative review of a London builder deleted under US copyright law. Her story, told to The Guardian, suggested a copy of her review had been created and backdated, a process that just happened to allow a copyright complaint by the purported author of the backdated copy to push Mumsnet to delete the negative review, rather than face the risk of legal reprisal.
The business concerned denied any role in adverse practices or hiring contractors to engage in such tactics, but observers of the congested and competitive online reputation market will be unsurprised to hear such a mechanism described. This is a sector where low barriers to entry and extreme competition can drive fringe participants to engage in what we will kindly call ‘edgy’ tactics to attempt to deliver improbably good results.
The lure of those unfeasible gains can result in decisions that either draw more attention to the underlying issue or create problems in their own right. The scenario suggested by the Mumsnet post suggests a short-lived approach, as should a business ever be caught contriving false complaints under the American Digital Millennium Copyright regime an expensive encounter with the US legal system would surely await.
Even without breaking the law, criticism can result. Earlier this year, the Solicitors Regulation Authority was reported to have written a letter of advice to a Bradford law firm that sent a series of legal threats on behalf of the former MP George Galloway. The letters sparked significant controversy and complaints to the SRA about their tone and financial demands made (let us record that no finding was made against the law firm).
Online reviews and political skirmishes are a world away from the working lives of PRWeek’s readership, but the psychological lure of the easy answer can still take hold in business. Pressure on individuals, either due to their role or because an issue impacts them personally, can affect their judgement in evaluating the risks they are willing to take to achieve a reputation benefit. But similarly those who do not enjoy dealing with adverse reputation topics can fail to assess the handling of risks – from litigation to managing online profiles.
Understanding how contractors or subcontractors will achieve their ends is part of it, but it is important to adapt to the two golden rules for handling issues that might affect reputation: don’t do anything in defence of your reputation that makes you look bad; and don’t write anything in your defence you would be embarrassed to read re-posted online.
Just as businesses are adapting to scrutiny of their tax strategies, offshore structuring and governance, so too reputation management strategies not only need to become more sophisticated and attuned to charting risks and benefits, but are also serving as a commentary on the astuteness of management teams.
Chris Scott is a partner at Schillings