The internet lets your brand reach more people than ever before: that’s the good news. The bad news is that anyone with a laptop and a grudge can reach them too, bad-mouthing your organisation or betraying your vital business secrets to the world with the click of a mouse. But there are effective ways to combat this kind of brand-vandalism.

Based on our experience of helping clients around the world, we have put together this quick checklist of what to do when a malicious blogger targets your business:

Identify your opponent: what, who and where?

What’s the story?

Get to the bottom of the facts - are the allegations false? What’s the background?

Who are you dealing with?

Identify who owns the domain name (e.g. through an online ‘who is’ search) and contact website administrators and internet service providers (ISPs) for useful information such as the history of the site and its location.

Where are they?

Once something’s on the net, it’s usually globally accessible, but courts act against people and wrongdoings within a specific territory. It’s therefore essential to know the physical location of the blogger or website. Courts in some countries are more ready than others to take action and that will be a key factor in deciding whether to go down the legal route or use another strategy to defend your brand.

Choose your tools tactically

Think strategically about what you want to achieve and how to get it. You don’t want to win a legal battle only to lose the public relations (PR) war. Is the problem best dealt with by simply shrugging it off and letting the storm blow over, by taking legal action or through a completely different approach, such as a PR counter-attack? In any event, work with your PR team to decide the best way to refute damaging claims. Prepare questions and answers, and brief the people in your organisation’s front line on how to respond to questions by customers and press.

The legal proceedings route is more likely to be appropriate if there’s deliberate infringement of your intellectual property (IP) rights or malicious reputational damage by repeat offenders, or if it’s clear that a competitor is behind the harmful material.

Make initial contact

Contacting the ISP directly can be faster and cheaper than suing. Ask the owner of the site or the ISP to remove the offending material. (Point out any IP infringement – large ISPs will generally act quickly if there is a clear breach of your IP rights.) In the EU, the E-Commerce Directive encourages ISPs to remove infringing materials promptly by offering them certain legal defences. Keep in mind, however, that some ISPs may be reluctant to cut off service to their customers without giving them a chance to respond to your claims.

Understand your legal options

Available claims

The main claims you might bring over online posts are:

  • defamation, malicious falsehood or interfering with contractual relations;
  • IP (especially trade mark and copyright) infringement;
  • breaches of the European unfair commercial practices regime; and
  • breach of contract – e.g. if blogging by a disgruntled employee is in breach of employment terms.

Action against the individual blogger

Sometimes, this is the only effective option. If their identity is hidden and the ISP refuses to divulge it, you may need a court order to make the ISP unmask the culprit. In some cases, just threatening or starting legal action will produce the desired results but, if not, you may be able to get an injunction against the blogger. It’s critical that you be ready to deal with any adverse PR, in case the blogger decides to stir up a story in the press or online.

Recapturing hijacked domain names

A common tactic of angry bloggers is to register an abusive version of your domain name (‘brandxsucks.com’ is a favourite). Any domain name used to peddle false information about your organisation can be damaging and in some cases you can have it transferred to your control without a court order. One way of doing this is through the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), which provides a relatively effective procedure for recovering unlawfully registered domain names. Remember, different countries have different policies for country-specific domain names, so you may need local legal advice.

Get your side of the story across

Whether or not you take legal action, your PR team should be considering how to get the right message to your key stakeholders. What kind of information do your customers, shareholders, employees and suppliers need to hear? Broadcast information that clarifies or corrects any misrepresentations – this can be an effective way of countering brand damage.

Case study

One of our consumer products clients recently turned to us for help when it discovered that some of its highly valuable confidential information had been posted on a blogging and file-sharing forum. It needed to identify the source of the leak so that it could take immediate action to prevent further damage.

When the ISP refused our request to identify the blogger without a court order, we got an urgent injunction requiring the company to disclose the information. It turned out that the blogger was an employee and the client was then able to resolve the issue quickly and effectively.

Prevention is better than cure

Having sound strategies in place can mitigate or even prevent blogging problems. Consider the following possibilities:

a) Educate your workforce

Create a blogging and social networking policy that covers how employees can use social media for work purposes. Spell out any restrictions on activity outside work that may have a damaging impact on your brand. Communication and training are vital: make sure staff know that breaches of the policy may have serious consequences.

b) Build relationships with social networking sites

Establish a presence on sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Integrate their platforms into your marketing and PR campaigns and set up effective communication channels for dealing with offensive content, so that the right people in your company hear about it quickly.

c) Consider creating your own blog

An official blog, possibly with monitored content, will provide a focal point for online comment and may mean bloggers feel less need to start their own forum.

d) Track online discussions about your brand

Spotting negative comments early can help prevent potential PR disasters. Use the array of software available to monitor public sites and analyse stakeholder opinion of your products and brand.

e) Establish robust PR

Getting the right message out is often more effective than taking legal action. Be ready to respond to posts on public sites so you can head off unfavourable material or incorrect statements before they go viral. Think about participating in independent review and aggregation sites.