Tackling Negative Publicity: Fighting Back Against Smear Campaigns and Negative Reviews on the Internet

Tackling Negative Publicity: Fighting Back Against Smear Campaigns and Negative Reviews on the Internet
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The Harsh Reality of the Internet

There’s no denying how helpful the Internet has become when promoting businesses, charities and even individuals. Thanks to the Internet, you’re no longer limited by the distance you’re willing to drive to purchase goods or services. Not to mention, the Internet is an extremely helpful place to research other businesses via places like Google Reviews, Yelp, and the comment and review sections of online retailers and shops like Etsy and Amazon.

However, the harsh reality of this is that not only will you get positive feedback or constructive critique—you are potentially going to get negative feedback, too. While negative feedback is common, it can be taken too far. What do you do if you find yourself in the middle of a smear campaign?

That’s exactly where Steve Dubrinsky—a deli owner in Birmingham, Alabama—found himself. Dubrinsky defended his Latino workers and their reactions to Alabama’s new immigration law, and much to his surprise found his business and his personal ethics under attack on Google Reviews. Within a matter of hours, his business’s rating dropped to one-and-a-half stars out of a total of five.

What happens if you find yourself in a similar situation? What are your rights, as well as the rights of your reviewers? Here we’ll take a look at how to handle negative publicity, as well as what you can do to combat it.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On

When you find yourself the target of a smear campaign, the last thing you need to do is go out and retaliate. You’re not in grade school, remember? By retaliating with your own smear campaign, the only thing you do is stoop to their level and ruin your own reputation. But what can you do instead of getting mad and getting even?

You don’t need to fan the flames—or the flame wars, as it were. Give yourself a bit of a cooldown period. Take a break, take an early lunch or just take some time to get away from the situation and rationalize just what happened and why it did. If you’ve got employees who are aware of the situation, make sure they don’t respond either. You don’t want to get in more hot water because of someone else’s rash behavior.

Identify the Severity

There’s a big difference between a smear campaign and one or two people writing bad reviews about you on the Internet. While it isn’t a pretty fact, the guise of anonymity sometimes leads people to say very stupid or even downright hurtful things out of spite, boredom, or just trying to give you their portion of negative publicity.

A thirty-second trip to any YouTube video is sure to show you how people can be when they don’t have to face any consequences for their actions. So if you see a comment or two saying how terrible your business is, brush it off. Or better yet, respond directly to the person who left the comment and see if there is any way that you can help them through their problems. By showing that you’re a flexible business owner, you’re likely to win over more people who will admire your compassion and dedication to customer satisfaction.

However, if you’re pretty sure that you’re being harassed wrongly, it’s time to take a look at other options. Think you’re the target of a smear campaign, but not entirely sure? Here’s a few ways to get a better insight into the negative publicity.

  • How frequent are the negative comments coming in? If you find that these comments are suddenly flooding in over the course of a few hours, chances are you’re the target of a smear campaign. This can also help you pinpoint exactly what you may have done to bring on a smear campaign.

  • Do the comments seem strangely similar? Are they all pointing out a similar experience? If you find that a lot of comments seem to point out a problem that shouldn’t logically happen over and over, or even the exact same situation, these people might have been coached to point out something.

  • Do the attacks seem overly personal, attacking your character rather than your business? Smear campaigns are often designed to attack a specific person—usually the owner of a business—and may host personal information such as phone numbers, addresses or other personal information.

  • If you can check the profile of the people leaving the negative comments, look to see how many other comments they’ve left, as well as the age of their account. Most smear campaigns boast a high number of first-time commenters, with accounts less than twenty-four hours old.

Realize that you may have inadvertently done something to bring on the smear campaign, and pinpointing it will be absolutely crucial to helping to clear your name. While you may have not done anything wrong, it’s possible that you have unintentionally offended or opposed someone else. Take your time and figure out exactly who you offended and why whatever you did bothers them so much. Now that you’ve pinpointed the cause, it’s time for damage control.

Immediate Damage Control

Defamation—or the act of stating hurtful information or lies with the intention of hurting someone’s reputation—is illegal in many countries, so you should know that technically the law is on your side. That doesn’t mean that you should call in your lawyers at a moment’s notice. In fact, chances are that a lawyer probably isn’t going to be able to help you. The anonymity of the Internet makes it hard for a lawyer to make any move, and many online jurisdictions tend to blur the line between allowing free speech and preventing libel.

Your first course of action should be to see if you can contact the owner of the website (such as Google Reviews, Amazon or Yelp) and check to see what its policy on removing abusive reviews is. Many of these websites are happy to review individual cases and remove any smear comments, so definitely look into what is available to protect both you as a business and future customers. Keep in mind, though, that by having a company listed on review websites, reviewers technically have the right to post both positive and negative reviews about you.

Going Public

Doing a little PR is a good idea as well. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make the situation go away, and can even lend credence to what is being said about you. Acknowledge the situation for what it is, but do it in a professional way. Take your time to think about how you want to bring this to the public. How far are you willing to go to defend your side of the issue? Plot a course of action for how you want to deal with the negative publicity.

When you finally do go public, stick to the facts and only the facts. Making sure that you have a truthful argument and a level head is your best chance to weather the drama. Trust me, people are likely to notice when others are acting irrationally, and you can use this to your advantage.

By using the facts to back up your side, you regain more control over what is going on, and force those lashing out against you to either dispute the facts or outright ignore them—not a great position for them. Don’t sink to their level, no matter how badly you want to. This means that if you know who is attacking you, be it a competing business or an individual with a reputation at stake, don’t go trying to smear them or call them out. After all, you’re not in the fourth grade. You definitely want to take the high road here, and be remembered as the level-headed one in this situation.

You don’t have to respond to every hurtful comment, either. Smear campaigns are well-known for being filled with ridiculous amounts of fluff and nonsense, and taking the time to debate each and every charge is simply a waste of time and energy. Answer the ones that relate directly to the issue, and don’t feel like you have to keep responding to the same ones over and over.

Make public statements to your customers and colleagues, be it on your website, blog or social media venues. Explain to them that you know what is going on, and that you appreciate their support. Acknowledging the issue and explaining how you are working through it helps people to visualize what is going on more accurately. Remember, though—keep it classy. Like I’ve already mentioned, you’re going to want to stick to the facts and be the bigger man here.

Has your business ever been targeted in a smear campaign? If so, what steps did you take to combat the situation? Leave a note in the comments—we’d love to hear your take on this increasingly common problem.