Businesses are incredibly vulnerable to online reputation attacks.  Virtually anyone with a motive can seriously harm a business’s reputation online.  This issue has been previously framed from a company perspective.  What has not been discussed as much is how company executives are also quite susceptible to being attacked online, and it is just as important for businesses to protect and defend against online attacks directed at their leaders. 

Just as various parties such as prospective customers, potential employees and other businesses seeking B2B relationships will search for information about a business online, researching specific company executives is common practice as well.  Thus, it is easy to see the harm that can be caused if false and defamatory information about an executive appears online, particularly high in search engine rankings.

No one will want to do business with a company whose leader has been (wrongfully, unbeknownst to them) accused of engaging in fraud in a high-ranking Ripoff Report post, for example.  The same can be said of potential investors, prospective employees or even other executives who might otherwise consider landing a position with that company.

Thus, it is imperative that businesses not only protect against, attempt to prevent and plan for online reputation attacks of the companies themselves, but businesses should also do the same for its executives.

Reputation is a legitimate concern  

A 2013 Deloitte survey of 300 executives revealed that reputation was the top strategic risk for large businesses, overall and in most individual sectors.  This is largely due to social media; yet many businesses and their leaders are still unaware of the harm being caused on various complaint websites and other online forums.

Not only do the aforementioned Ripoff Report posts tend to rank highly on Google, but they are difficult to remove because Ripoff Report’s policy is to never delete any posts.  And the Communications Decency Act allows this.

Businesses need to know how to react when one of its executives has had his or her reputation attacked on a website such as Ripoff Report or on social media, and this involves being prepared in advance.

Protection

In some instances, it might not be possible to wholly prevent online attacks, including defamation or even executive impersonation.  Moreover, businesses must prepare for the fact there will be negative online statements about their executives that might prove difficult to remove.

When it comes to other parties seeking information about an executive, businesses must strive to protect search results pertaining to their executives – in particular on the first search engine results pages, or SERPs (noting that search results on the first page of Google receive 91.5 percent of the traffic, according to a 2013 Chitika study).

Accordingly, a business will want to consider generating positive content to populate the SERPs pertaining to its executives. This can mitigate the potential damage caused by others publishing damaging content about them, which otherwise might rank highly on the search engines.

Many websites on which people can attack executives, such as Ripoff Report, have significant search engine strength/domain authority (meaning posts on these websites tend to rank well).  Thus, businesses should think about investing time and resources to create positive content about its leadership that outranks potential negative posts.

For example, a business can generate press stories which can be submitted to various newswires or news organizations, in addition to publication on company websites.  This means going beyond traditional “company news,” and instead looking for additional opportunities to create some buzz.

It is also recommended that the executives publish blog posts and guest articles in relevant reputable (and high-ranking) publications, which can be impactful and also inexpensive.

Monitoring

Businesses and their executives must also stay abreast of what is being said about them online.  For very prominent/highly-visible executives, monitoring needs to be on the scale of daily, if not hourly; for most others, it should be at least multiple times per week.  And certainly, if an executive or his or her company is in the news for something even the slightest bit controversial, someone from within the company must be constantly paying attention to the conversations online and on social media.

Early detection of potentially damaging content is crucial.  Detecting harmful content early on allows a business to address the potential problem as soon as possible, and ideally prevent a crisis and/or the spreading of bad information to other websites and publications.

Moreover, should legal action be in play, there are two important time-related considerations: 1) the short statute of limitations for defamation and business torts; and 2) the fact that many service providers do not maintain records for more than a year (sometimes less), should it become necessary to issue a subpoena for an unknown internet poster’s identifying information.

Techniques for removing or otherwise handling damaging content

If and when an online reputation attack against an executive occurs, the appropriate response will depend on the specific facts and circumstances.  That being said, there are a number of options that are frequently effective.

These techniques are outlined in our In-House Counsel Guidebook, which can be a helpful resource for any business professional who may be forced to handle an online reputation attack.  As discussed in detail in the Guidebook, techniques include:

  • Convincing websites to voluntarily remove harmful content;
  • Contacting the media;
  • Engaging in confidential negotiations;
  • Obtaining court orders to get links removed from websites or de-indexed from search results;
  • Sending cease and desist letters; and
  • Bringing lawsuits.

Given that company reputations are largely dictated by what is published on the internet, including about both the companies themselves and their executives, we strongly recommend that businesses protect their executives in anticipation of and in the wake of online reputation attacks.

For executives themselves, it is certainly important to protect their personal reputations online – ideally with the assistance of their companies.  After all, should an executive wish to join a new company, take a position on a board, or get involved with any organization whatsoever in the future — just to name a few examples — he or she cannot afford to have damaging information about him or her on the internet.