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How to Recover From a Major Online Blunder Digital disasters such as bad reviews, unfavorable news coverage or public embarrassments can be very damaging to your bottom line and business vitality.

By Derek Newton

entrepreneur daily

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Many people worry about disasters affecting their businesses. That's normal. It's also why business have insurance and disaster recovery plans. But even the most prepared businesses probably lack plans for dealing with digital disasters.

That's a bit surprising because digital disasters such as bad reviews, unfavorable news coverage or public embarrassments can be every bit as damaging to your bottom line and business vitality as any physical disaster. It's even more surprising when you consider how many businesses, especially startups, live online now. For many small and new businesses, a bad online presence, or a digital disaster, won't just be a setback, it will be fatal.

The truth is that, because of the nature of online catastrophes, there are two reasons they can even be worse for your business than physical ones.

Related: How Startups Can Bounce Back After a Failed First Launch

The first is that what's online is like a zombie: It can live forever and be impossible to kill. Unlike floods or fires or other tragedies, the results of a digital disaster can be easily found and seen for years. A good renovation can cover signs of pervious damage and maybe even be cause for improvements. One bad day or bad moment, on the other hand, can hang like a sign on your front door, forever. The ignominious list of companies and entrepreneurs who've learned this lesson include American Apparel, Martin Shkreli, Gawker and Subway. Their errors or bad publicity will be a regrettable part of their online presence for a long, long time.

The second reason that online disasters can be worse than physical ones is that experts who can help your business, and the process to fix the damage, can be murky. In comparison to more traditional disasters, the internet and social media are new, so the recovery rules are still being worked out. Which means that, when you or your business is the unpleasant recipient of an online avalanche, getting good help and quick results can be its own challenge.

But fear not. There are a few things you can and should do to recover from a digital disaster.

Address it in real life, not just online.

First, if you don't have an in-house PR team with experience in crisis management, find one. Follow good advice about handling the crisis in the real world with affirmative statements, concrete actions and strategic vision.

You may not be able to write or rewrite the first chapter of the story (if you're facing a digital disaster, that chapter has likely already been written) but what you do and say today will be the second chapter. Don't miss the opportunity to make the second story better. People will write about and share and post what you do in response to the issue, even if what you do is nothing. Maybe even especially then.

Bring in an SEO reputation expert

SEO – search engine optimization – is the art and science of getting your news, views and business offerings well placed in search engines. The people and companies who do SEO well also have the ability to manage or massage the search results you'd prefer people not see right away. The new-ish SEO market is called reputation management and, if your company is in a digital disaster, you need a reputation manager.

A good reputation manager can help you assess the damage in ways you may not even know about or understand. And they can help you build a plan to deal with it.

Related: What to Do When Your Company Is Being Held 'Hostage' By a Toxic Employee

"An experienced reputation SEO expert will be able to look at the situation and offer advice based on things like where an article or review is published – what kind of authority does the site have? Are the key words – the names of the person or business – in the meta-data or in the content of the article? Or both?" Cutis Boyd of Future Solutions Media, an SEO reputation company, told me. "You can't build a plan if you don't understand what or where the problem really is."

But look around for a good SEO manager in your time of crisis. The field is new and complex and getting the right person is worth a few minutes of asking around and checking references because a bad fit can cost you far more than money.

Start early

When you find the right reputation manager, bring them in early. By early I mean immediately. Making an SEO expert part of your response team can help guide decisions like which media matter most in crafting statements, what words need to be in those statements and how, if at all, to deploy your social media resources. You can get through an active crisis without an SEO reputation oracle but bringing them in later to clean up the damage can be more difficult, take longer and cost more.

Reverse SEO

As the dust settles, your SEO expert will likely advise what's called a reverse SEO strategy: populating search results with information that takes away from or buries that damaging material.

You can ty it on your own, or with the help of a traditional PR outlet. The idea is pretty simple: get positive news about you or your company in credible, high-ranking news outlets. But do it in a way that does not mention the issue that triggered the digital disaster. Getting an article written about why you say you're not so bad or why you deny the bad things that were said won't help. That approach just repeats the charges and is bad PR and bad SEO.

Before trying it on your own, though, talk to an expert because doing it correctly is not easy. "Reverse SEO is very difficult even for the best SEO/Online reputation agencies," Boyd said.

Related: The 3-Step Emergency Plan Every Entrepreneur Needs

Don't be passive

Most of all, don't sit back and expect bad online issues to just fade away. Printed headlines fade, Google doesn't. Online flood waters won't recede, they stick around and start to stink. If you're going to weather bad online weather, you've absolutely got to be pro-active. Confront the issue, talk with experts and take action to limit the damage and start your recovery.

Derek Newton

NYC based communications and public relations professional

Derek Newton is a communications expert and writer based in New York City. He has been working in nonprofit, political and policy communications for more than 20 years and helped launch several startups. 

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