Get All Access for $5/mo

Corporate Reputation Management: To Sue or Not to Sue When Your Company's Competitors Go Negative Here are some tips for emergency reputation management your company can use if it ever finds itself on the receiving end of a corporate smear campaign.

By Ryan Blanch Edited by Chelsea Brown

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As many seasoned entrepreneurs, CMOs and in-house counsel have learned, brand protection has evolved, or perhaps devolved, into a blood sport. Some industries are more cut-throat than others, but in the ever-rapidly changing world of social media and online marketing, increasingly, companies are finding themselves on the receiving end of corporate smear campaigns.

They are sometimes disguised as an onslaught of negative customer feedback posts. And, at other times, through cleverly orchestrated "whisper campaigns" across social media channels, industry forums or chat boards. These reputational attacks are just another set of tools of the trade for some unscrupulous competitors and the marketing agencies that they hire.

Related: How to Manage (and Repair) Your Business' Online Reputation

And because of the ability to recruit teams offshore using remote hiring platforms, bad actors are bolder than ever before — slandering with impunity while layered in anonymity through fake accounts and in a country that makes the legal process untenable.

So, what does the enterprising, savvy CEO do when faced with such an attack? Every reputational crisis is different, but here are some tips for emergency reputation management in such a situation:

Evaluate the problem

Does this appear to be organic, or are there signs of a contrived effort? Look for:

Profiles of online posters and authors who seem to have no real history of posting comments, reviews or articles in the past. Do they have deep profiles on LinkedIn, Instagram and other social media platforms? If not, there is a good chance you are dealing with a bot or sock-puppet who has been deployed by a competitor.

Another tell-tale sign of black-hat sabotage is where the "unhappy client or customer" does, in fact, have a robust online presence — but also has a history of posting mostly negative reviews. This is exactly what it looks like: An agency has been hired to launch another corporate attack and is reusing its prior online profiles to do so. Examine these closely. Have many of them also reviewed the same companies in the past? What are the chances that the same three people are posting negative reviews to your wealth management fund and also happened to complain about the same plastic-surgery center a year ago?

Related: Troubled With Fake Reviews? Here's How You Can Solve the Problem

Assemble a team

The team starts with your in-house people. For larger companies, be sure to include your in-house counsel, chief marketing officer, and appointed crisis manager in an emergency round-table. Do we suspect who this might be? Is there a strategic way of snuffing this out without recruiting outside resources?

Do not react

Knee-jerk reactions almost never work out. Like a good chess player, you need to analyze the terrain and think a few moves ahead before acting. And we're talking about three-dimensional chess occupying both legal, digital and crisis dimensions.

Do not fight fire with fire

Once you've identified the culprit, you might be inclined to respond in kind and go negative yourself. The myriad reasons why this is a horrible idea are beyond the scope of this article. But trust me — don't do it. Drop me a line if you need to be talked off the ledge.

Do hire the right team

Your team should consist of lawyers, PR professionals and reputation management experts. Sometimes a well-crafted demand letter or TRO will resolve the problem. Or, it could make matters worse (remember the Streisand Effect). Your PR agency will need to begin putting together their crisis communications initiative and media blitz of positive content while the reputation management company looks for ways to take down the offending content and provide backup to the PR agency by lending some SEO juice to the new, positive articles once they are live. It's not enough to simply publish your corporate news. Every positive article that is published must be more powerful than even the weakest negative post you are seeking to remove from page one of Google's search results — and you will need at least ten of these in order to push the negative content to page two. Side note: No one visits page two, so pushing it there is tantamount to removal.

Rely on your advisors, but be sure to decide for yourself

Remember the old maxim: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? Well, the same is all too often true of law firms. They have one tool in their toolbelt: sue. So, it perhaps comes as no surprise that they are likely to advise exactly that. But again, don't forget the Streisand Effect. The PR agency will want to launch a positive PR campaign but be warned: This could bring about unwanted attention to your company by journalists who are likely to exacerbate the negative news you are seeking to bury. And, reputation management firms typically post content that is unsightly and nonsensical in an inartful attempt to simply "push down" the negative without much thought about what will replace it. So, you will need to find the right balance between these disparate tactics.

Related: 7 Ways to Recover After a Reputation Crisis

Force your advisors to collaborate and problem-solve

You need to get them in the same room to problem-solve, along with you and your internal team. They are each an expert in their respective domains, but you are the expert in your company, your brand, your vision and your competition. It is likely that the best solution is going to be a hybrid of PR, Legal, Reputation Management & Crisis Communications. Each of these professionals may have difficulty thinking outside their lane. However, if you've hired wisely, they will quickly adjust to collaborate and conspire in your favor.

Like corporate espionage, reputational attacks are unfortunately becoming another illicit tool of the trade in several industries, including in capital markets, healthcare, and more recently, blockchain platforms and cryptocurrency marketing.

Companies would be wise to monitor the digital landscape consistently and assemble a response team to deal with whatever comes. The old crisis management playbooks have shorter and shorter shelf lives and are no longer one-size-fits-all solutions. As such, navigating the new threats that emerge will require a bleeding-edge, bespoke approach to problem-solving — one that spans the chasm between PR strategy, reputation management savvy and litigation prowess.

Ryan Blanch

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

PR Exec & Reputation Management Attorney

Ryan Blanch is an award-winning PR & Legal Strategist, Reputation Defense Attorney and Crisis Manager. A white-collar criminal defense attorney by training, he founded Repute PR + Repute Law, to better serve the firm's clientele needing PR in legally sophisticated, or turbulent, environments.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Starting a Business

He Started an 'Accidental' Business at 25 With Just $2,000 — Then Gave His Product to the Pope: 'Anyone Can Be an Entrepreneur'

Michael Aram, founder of the namesake luxury home and jewelry brand, learned the art of metalworking in India — and used it to launch a global brand.

Business News

Elon Musk Endorses Trump, Says He's Faced Two Recent Assassination Attempts: 'Dangerous Times Ahead'

Elon Musk endorsed former President Trump minutes after the failed assassination at a rally in Pennsylvania and says two attempts have been made on his life while living in Texas.