Online reputation is a top-of-mind concern for executives these days, and with good reason. The costs and consequences of everything from a data breach to a negative story going viral are significant — and in some cases, can be severe and lasting. Indeed, Target is still feeling the financial effects of the massive 2013 hack to its payment card Point-of-Sale system, and who knows how long it will take for Pepsi to get completely out from under the catastrophic Kendall Jenner-protest ad (if there is a paradoxical silver lining here, according to WIRED the ad was so universally reviled, that it actually unified the Internet — which is no small feat indeed).
However, while online reputation management has emerged as a top strategic priority, the fact remains that most businesses are not effectively fortifying some areas of the threat surface; not because they are trying to cut corners or save money, but frankly, because they aren’t aware that these vulnerabilities exist; that is until something awful happens, and they’re forced into frenetic (and expensive) damage control mode. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if you suspect that you’re among these vulnerable businesses — or if you flat out concede that you are — then you don’t have to brace for impact and hope for the best. Instead, you can be proactive by targeting and fortifying three key areas that are probably not on the radar screen, but absolutely need to be:
1. Social Media and Web Points-of-Presence
According to social media governance firm Brandle, a point-of-presence is any place on the web or social media in which a company, brand, person or group is represented. This includes corporate-owned properties, as well as those created by customers and other community members (e.g. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, discussion groups, etc.).
The first step is to discover where all of these points-of-presence are — which may sound fairly simple, but there’s a good chance that your web and social media footprint is much wider and deeper than you realize; especially if you’re been in business for a few years. Next, you need to organize them into those you want to keep vs. those you want to shut down (if you own them) or neutralize (if you don’t). Then, you want to assign ownership to appropriate teams and departments, and finally you want to continuously monitor the existing inventory plus hunt for new entrants (they grow like weeds).
2. Your Workforce
Employees can be — and usually are — a weak link in the online reputation management chain. And we’re not just talking about disgruntled rogue workers who have an axe to grind. The vast majority of employee-triggered data breaches and intelligence leaks (e.g. potential mergers, secret product developments, etc.) are shared by employees who are not seeking any personal gain or have been compromised by bad actors, but are simply making mistakes that can’t be undone. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.
The best (and really, the only) way to reduce risk here is by combining effective staff training with strong policy enforcement. And if you’re worried about legal blowback from employees who say that you have no right to govern what they say or do on their private time, and through their personal accounts (social media, email, etc.), point out that the courts typically disagree. You’re not interested in being Big Brother. You just want to keep the organization safe — which is good for job security, too.
3. Your Competitors
You already know that your competitors are working non-stop to steal your current and future customers. That’s not unethical or evil: it’s life in the free market. Build a better mousetrap (and enhance it with a great customer experience), and you’ll command more marketshare. There’s nothing new or shocking about this.
However, in the online world, some businesses have taken things to a whole new level — down, instead of up — by aiding and abetting what can called “Black Ops Meets the Interwebs.” For example, competitors may plant faux customers in your community who pick fights, make accusations, and basically try and wreck your reputation through the guide of being just an ordinary customer. In extreme cases, some shady competitors may even set up fraudulent websites or social media accounts to fool your customers into buying their stuff instead of yours.
And of course, this tactic is an old standard for cyber criminals running spear phishing campaigns, which are designed to lull unsuspecting customers (and even employees, vendors, suppliers, partners, etc.) into sharing confidential data and/or downloading files or visiting websites that deploy malware and viruses. Although legitimate businesses are as blameless here as banks are if they get robbed, it’s nevertheless a major online reputation management threat since, well, bad news can — and often does — unfairly stick to brands. Once this happens, it can be extremely difficult and costly to clean up.
The strategy for avoiding this misery is, like everything else on this list: be proactive and continuously monitor communities, chat rooms, social media and so on, to detect if conversations or comments aren’t passing the (virtual) smell test. If not, something untoward may be happening in the background — and you need to get your compliance team, and possibly law enforcement, into the action.
The Bottom Line
The importance of online reputation management has elevated from a best practice to an essential priority. The above will help your business reduce exposure and vulnerability on an ever-increasing threat landscape.