I've spent the last several days helping a client with the online part of a PR "damage control" situation. Without going into the specifics of the situation with that particular client, I will simply say that online reputation management is ALWAYS more easily handled proactively rather than reactively (after the damage has been done). Sometimes this is not avoidable, however. The more competitive or controversial your industry, the more likely this could eventually happen to you, so let's talk about a few ways to handle online reputation damage control:
1) Do NOT ignore the problem. Once the problem exists online, it can take on a life of its own, and is often immortal. You need to take actual as quickly as possible.
2) Tell your side of the story right away. Whether you are being falsely accused of something, or you (or your company) have actually made a mistake, it is important to address the problem as quickly as possible. If you find out about what happened on someone else's blog, you have already lost control of the dialogue, and you are now on the defensive. If you can get a well-worded (honest) statement describing your side of the story out as quickly as possible, you will have more control over the conversation.
3) Rally your fans, customers, supporters, friends, family to help support you publicly. The interesting thing about public opinion is that it is contagious. If the public sees and hears people supporting you or your business, they will be more inclined to give you the benefit of any doubt. If all they hear are complaints and criticism, they'll be more likely to believe that "where there's smoke there's fire," and stay away.
4) Propose a solution, and carry it out. What this means, exactly, will vary depending on the nature of your business, and the nature of the problem. But one thing that never changes is that "actions speak louder than words." Americans love a happy ending. If people see you out there (in action) using whatever just happened to you to the advantage of yourself and others, they will be much more likely to see the problem as being resolved, and also to remember what you DID in response to the problem, rather than what other people SAID about you.
5) Realize that some people will never like you. Ignore them. While it is important not to ignore any potential Public Relations catastrophe, it is also important not to give your competition or adversaries more power by trying to change their opinion. Keep a sense of humor, and remind them that "any publicity is good publicity," and then focus on your business and your mission.
Jennifer Pointer (e-mail) is in Tulsa, OK. She promotes a simple, a low-tech approach to effective online profile management, search engine optimization and social networking.