YourABA April 2012 Masthead

Advice on managing online reputation issues

Business leaders are becoming more protective of their companies’ online reputations and many are asking their lawyers what, if anything, they can do minimize damage when unfavorable information about them is posted online. Litigation is not the best way to handle these situations, according to experts on an ABA-CLE panel, “Reputation Management in the Digital Age: How ‘Information Permanency’ Affects the Way Businesses and Individuals are Viewed by Others,” hosted by the Forum Committee on Communications Law.

Online information is usually presented without context, said David C. Thompson, attorney with Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

“Something from 20 years ago can be dredged up and made to look like that is the only thing to know about you,” Thompson said. “It can be a false accusation, it can be a true thing that is taken out of context, or it could be about somebody completely different.”

Newspapers specifically face constant backlash from bloggers who disagree with editorial boards and go to great lengths to attack the publication and journalists online, Thompson said.

“Something from 20 years ago can be dredged up and made to look like that is the only thing to know about you,” Thompson said.

Although businesses tend to turn to litigation, going to court is often not the best solution, said Thompson, former general counsel and privacy officer for Reputation.com, one of the first companies created to help businesses and companies deal with online reputation problems.

“As it turns out, ligation just draws more attention to the problem. It creates records that are indisputably public, and makes the problem much bigger than it originally was.”

Instead, there are non-legal solutions such as putting up your own content online, and developing best practices to avoid going to court over these issues, Thompson continued.

By putting up favorable information on the web, companies may be able to push the negative content toward the bottom of search results. “It is a wonderful example of how to clean up your Google profile: by bombarding it with positive stories so the negative stuff goes to the back pages,” Thompson explained.

The sooner a company reacts to negative search results the better, Thompson urged.

“Respond quickly; the debate may be polarized against you and have a real mobbing effect,” said Jeffrey Rosen, professor, George Washington School of Law.

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Panelists also offered tips on creating one’s own online presence. Utilizing social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Blogger as well as starting one’s own website is one way of getting good content at the top of search engine results.

“Keep it entirely professional.  You don’t have to blog about your personal life or anything like that on those sites, and if you link them together they tend to rise up in Google,” Thompson explained. 

If you are facing an issue where negative content about you or your business has gotten out of control in the search results, seek professional help from a reputation management company, and start building your own positive content, Thompson said.

“Build your own professional website. Buy your own personal name as a .com domain so you can use your own site to respond to these problems.”

Google’s method of searching for data tends to be highly biased towards names so setting up a website using your name will help push your own content to the top of search results, Thompson said. “If your name is David Thompson, it’s going to find all the sites with David and Thompson in it and push that up to the top.” 

In addition to Thompson and Rosen, David Bralow, assistant general counsel, Tribune Company, New York; and Margaret Holt, standards editor, Chicago Tribune, Chicago; served as panelists for the program.  Along with the Forum Committee on Communications Law, the program was co-sponsored by the Section of Science & Technology Law and the Center for Continuing Legal Education.

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