The very properties that make the web so suitable for business are the ones that can help undermine your reputation.
You can have the best web site in the world and a great business model, but a disgruntled customer or former employee can destroy both in a matter of minutes with a critical blog.
Every high profile company you can think of has a damaging alter ego online. Take United Airlines in the US.
If you search Google for Starbucks, you will find that seventh on the list of results is www.spacehijackers.co.uk/starbucks , a site dedicated to preventing the company from taking over the world. For American Express, there’s http://amexsux.com .
The leading American bank JP Morgan Chase was sufficiently annoyed by a critical site, www.chase-sucks.com, to send a legal warning recently to its operator. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
It gets worse. AOL was once the subject of critical attention at www.aolsucks.org .
That site has now been taken down, but the company currently finds itself with nearly 96,000 views on YouTube for an interview featuring a former customer who recorded an excruciating discussion he had with a worker at an AOL call centre — see it at http://uk.youtube.com/ watch?v=eWc4nK6sek0 .
So how do you combat negative publicity about your company or organisation on the web once you have found it? Option 1 is the Lowes option. Lowes, an American DIY company, decided to take legal action against an unhappy customer who set up the domain www.lowes-sucks.com .
The result? The complaint site was protected under the First Amendment to the American Constitution which allows free speech, and the attendant publicity drove huge volumes of traffic to the critical site.
This outcome is known as the Streisand Effect, after the singer Barbra Streisand sued a photographer and an online image archive to remove aerial pictures of her house from a web site.
The publicity merely encouraged people to search for pictures of her home.
Another tactic is to buy up domain names that might damage your image. Tate & Lyle, owners of the Splenda brand, have registered the rights to a whole range of names, including www.splendasucks. com , www.splendakills.com and www.all aboutsplenda.com . The problem with this policy is that it can appear that you have something to hide.
Next up is the monitoring approach. Watching what customers are saying about you can be the most effective way of intercepting bad publicity.
The search engine Serph checks web sites, blogs and social networking sites for any mention of your name or trademark. Find it at www.serph.com .
One major brand took this route. When David Felton couldn’t get skimmed milk for his coffee at Dunkin Donuts, he established a complaint site at www.dunkin donuts.org .
The company’s executives responded by checking the site daily and sending money-off coupons or mollifying emails to unhappy customers.
The firm eventually bought the site and now uses it for customer feedback. It’s perhaps the best example of dealing with critics online.
The bad news is that there is a whole new breed of web sites dedicated to the unhappy and the disgruntled.
There’s one simple method of staying off these sites. It’s called good customer service. And there’s a danger that too many organisations pay lip service to it, without putting it into practice.