Small businesses fight bad buzz on the internet

Small business owners struggle with reputation management on the internet, where a bad reputation can go viral

Small business owners struggle with reputation management

Professional photographer Bryan Caporicci thought he’d landed a great gig, when a zoo near his Fonthill Ontario studio hired him to capture beautiful images of their tigers, lemurs and elephants. 

An avid social media user, he decided to post a picture of himself with one of the elephants, while he was still at the shoot.

"I thought it would be a little teaser," he says, explaining that he uses Facebook and Twitter in lots of ways, to build the profile of his business.

This time, the strategy didn’t go as planned.

"Right after I posted it, an animal activist saw it – it was someone who doesn’t believe animals should be in zoos – and they must have shared it with all of their friends who are also against zoos," says Caporicci. "I got attacked like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never had so much action on a post in my life."

He was still on location at the zoo when he saw the huge reaction, and felt almost panicky. "I was thinking ‘oh my God, this is happening, what should I do?’"

Caporicci doesn’t make a practice of censoring or deleting social media, since in his view, it de-values everything he posts, turning it into a "glorified ad campaign". He wants to make sure his content is authentic, and has integrity. So he tried to explain on-line that he had simply been hired to do a job; he wasn’t making a statement about his beliefs.

It didn’t help. The outcry continued.

"After a couple of weeks, I finally decided that these individuals were being completely irrational about it, and there was nothing I could say to calm them down," he says. "So I just put a statement on my Facebook page, apologizing for offending anyone.  And I let it go."

And that’s how Bryan Caporicci joined the growing ranks of entrepreneurs who’ve been appalled to receive negative attention via social media.  Inadvertently offending someone is just one way to attract the angry horde. Very vocal and unhappy customers can spread the word far and wide when they’re well-connected on-line. There are even cases of veiled attacks from enemies, that are made to appear legitimate. 

"Reputation attacks are much more prevalent," says lawyer Michael Smith, who practices defamation and media law with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. "It’s certainly much more common these days for customers to take their gripes to social media, and that can happen even before they’ve given the customer service department of the business a chance to remedy the problem."

Smith has counseled many business owners who want advice on legal remedies to damage done to them via the Internet. He says he most often tells them not to hire him. "The first thing you’re going to see is that the complainer will turn the threat of legal action back against you, saying things like ‘oh look, they sicced their lawyers on me’. They’ll play the David and Goliath card."

In a recent case though, an Ottawa restaurant owner was found guilty of defamation, after mounting an on-line smear campaign.  Marisol Simoes must have been furious at restaurant reviewer Elayna Katz, who had given a thumbs-down on Simoes’ Byward Market eatery on a popular website.

According to testimony, Simoes signed up for various cyber-dating accounts in Katz’ name, and sexually harassed a number of Katz’ colleagues. The result?  Simoes was sentenced to 90 days in jail last November.  She’s out on bail and appealing. 

So what can an entrepreneur do when negative commentary is hurting business? There are plenty of firms that specialize in reputation management, although the industry itself sometimes gets bad buzz. This article from the Wall Street Journal mentions a number of American companies, and preaches caution.

I called a Canadian firm that specializes in "suppressing" negative content.

Toronto-based Reputation Guard has a number of testimonials from happy customers on its website, including this one from "Alexandra A" of Vancouver: "There are big American companies on the internet that do this same thing but that's not what I wanted. I like that someone professional sat down with me and developed a strategy. Now my reputation is awesome and most importantly it comes across as genuine."

The first thing that struck me was the phrase "it comes across" as genuine.  Is it not truly genuine?   It almost appears as if there some sleight of hand at work here.

I spoke to founder Matt Earle, asking if he ever investigates to see if the negative commentary he’s paid to suppress is valid or not.  He hemmed and hawed a bit before answering, making me think he doesn't do any checking. But eventually he responded with what I think is a good point.

"I’ll tell you this," says Earle. "It’s much more expensive and difficult to pay someone like us and continue to operate your business in a negligent way, than it is to just deal with the problem in the first place. If you’re going to have a restaurant and have everyone say it’s terrible, spending thousands and thousands on fighting your online reputation is much more difficult than just having a training session, or starting over, or running the business properly."

True enough. And I suppose you could also do-it-yourself, when it comes to getting rid of libelous or unfair commentary. Google offers several tools to help entrepreneurs monitor their on-line reputations themselves, and even remove problematic posts. 

As for photographer Bryan Caporicci, he has no way to know if the attack by animal activists cost him any business. But he’s certain it made some people take a newly negative view of him.

"I was doing some photography work for an animal shelter, on a voluntary basis," says Caporicci. "I’m certain that it made some people look at me differently. It was tough to take."