General Business

Protecting Small Businesses’ Online Reputations

Creating a positive online image, and appropriately responding to ‘negative comments.’

If a business offers a sub-par product or service, what was once “word of mouth” – now exponentially amplified by online social media and the broader internet – will, over time, likely hand the business’s customers or clients over to other, higher-performing firms. Yet, companies today are often concerned that false online statements (either on social media or other platforms) will unfairly derail their excellent firms.

Experts interviewed by New Jersey Business magazine generally stress the importance of building genuine, solid, in-person and online reputations before any problems or concerns arise. In brief, this means actually creating and delivering products/services that add value to customers, turning those individuals/companies into ongoing business relationships – and then showcasing this is online via social media/websites.

Business owners are additionally advised to create quality alliances with those who can assist them with a range of matters; not merely public relations professionals and attorneys, but all others in the broader business ecosystem. Many argue that it is not especially time consuming to create a list of experts who might be able to assist your business, and learn just enough about each specialty to be able to generally gauge the experts’ competence, reliability and characters.

In the specific realm of small businesses’ online reputation, Michael Cherenson, executive vice president of SCG Advertising + Public Relations in Parsippany, is not only a former president of the national Public Relations Society of America, but has lectured about online reputation before various groups. At several points during his interview with New Jersey Business magazine, he cited the adage, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you will bleed in war,” meaning – in effect – business owners are advised to, again, proactively build positive reputations on clear days (and develop incident response plans), before, say, someone falsely claims online that rats are scurrying around their pizzerias.

Cherenson adds, “Ask your employees: What is our reputational risk, both online and in person? By doing a risk assessment, assessing where our attacks could come from, in many cases you can avoid or alleviate those risks. If you are a pizzeria, are you managing your food properly? Are your drivers well trained? Is your staff well trained? Is your property well kept? Are you safe and secure? Are you delivering on your promises? Are you doing what you say you will do? Are you exceeding expectations?”

He adds, “That’s where the energy should be put. Obviously, you want to do all the bells and whistles. In most cases, if businesses deliver on their promises, they won’t have to deal with these [online reputation] issues.”

Online Actions

In the online arena, a range of resources exist for establishing a positive presence. Business owners may wish to conduct enough research that they can then ask a hired public relations firm appropriate questions about advancing their online images and reputations.

Cherenson says, “Have a positive, steady [online] drumbeat of what is going on. It should not be a sparse [website] page, where if there is a negative comment, it stands out.”

Jeff Barnhart, CEO and founder of CMA, a communications, marketing and association management firm, notes the importance of a business “being found” on the internet. “You’ve got to show up in a Google search, because that’s how [customers and clients] are prequalifying you; they are looking for people who show up near the top page, or at least on the first page of Google. If you are not there, then you are almost irrelevant. Then, when they click on that website or social media comes up, it’s got to be the message that they want to hear. It has got to be valid to what they searched for. Today’s marketing and sales is about being found, and then being relevant once you are found.”

He adds, “That’s kind of the good news/bad news about social media: If you can get people who have positive experiences to share those positive experiences, that builds that momentum in that social network, the social arena; the onsite, the online market, if you will. If you have a lot of ‘negatives’ there, then that’s going to do the exact opposite: People are going to look at that and say, ‘Oh, my, they are getting a lot of negative responses. I am going to second guess whether I should go to that facility, or use that particular place, company or organization.’”

And Whence the Negative

Even in a best-case preventative scenario, individuals exist who post negative online reviews. If it is a matter of opinion, such as, they ‘didn’t like the taste of the pizza,’ those comments can either be ignored because other reviewers say positive things – or, if the pizza actually does not taste good, the business owner ought to immediately fix the oven/recipe, etc.

If the statement is defamatory – that, again, there are false claims that there are “rats scurrying around the pizzeria” – that would typically require an immediate response, perhaps guided by an expert. Sometimes a response can be made by the business online, such as the fact that the facility just passed a health inspection, or another provably true statement. Either way, businesses should strive to monitor the internet for such comments.

Matthew S. Oorbeek, Esq, attorney at Genova Burns LLC, describes a situation in which a person commented on a contractor’s social media platform about poor workmanship, etc., and it then was revealed that those same comments by the supposed homeowner were made to several contractors’ websites.

Oorbeek says, “Clearly, they are not hiring multiple contractors to do the same work, and I am not aware of whether or not this was a competitor or things of that nature. But, the response to that was a factual statement from the business, which highlighted [the company’s] credibility, by saying, ‘We have seen that you’ve posted similar comments on other contractors’ websites. We don’t have a record of you being a customer of our business.’ And just to respond in a way that is both truthful and highlights the business’s credibility, because social media is a mechanism both to communicate with your customers, and also to build your brand identity. You want to be able to be seen as both being responsive to issues, but also protecting your own credibility, and doing it in a measured way – not getting overly aggressive, not directly threatening litigation in a public forum.”

He also adds that in the realm of defamation, businesses shouldn’t hesitate to contact trained legal counsel.

When online reputation is at hand, Jason A. Meisner, partner and practice group leader of the commercial services group at the law firm of Coughlin Duffy, says, “A strategy needs to be developed in each and every one of these situations, because sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use the bazooka to kill the mosquito. And sometimes you are dealing with a lot more than a mosquito, and you have to know which is which, and have a sense of what the impact is going to be.”

He adds, “There is no one formula. There is no one, great response that just says, ‘You follow A, B and C, and your problem is solved.’ And part of the reason is because these things can be so multi-faceted. There could be so many different pieces to the puzzle, as to how we got here, where we have this individual doing these types of things to this poor pizzeria owner. Instead, it is figuring out the source of the issue, and trying to reverse-engineer it from there.

“For example, if it is a disgruntled customer – and we can identify who the customer is – sometimes being able to engage that customer directly and have a conversation with them that’s going to lead to trying to reach a resolution where that person would voluntarily remove that information, might be an alternative.

“If we have no idea who this person is and they decided that we are going to be the target du jour – for whatever reason – that avenue is not going to be available. We might have to look towards the websites themselves to see if they will intervene. And, failing that, then possibly the court systems, to try to get injunctive relief; to try to shut those avenues down.”

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