When it comes to managing their online reputations, businesses face numerous challenges.
Thanks to the popularity of online reviews and social platforms that can give average consumers a large voice, negative online buzz can cause real damage to a company and its brand.
And in the case of small businesses, negative online buzz can literally kill.
But what happens when negative buzz is the result of a lie?
Unfortunately, companies large and small are finding that fighting back against lies online is tough work.
Fake reviews of the sinister kind
Fake online reviews designed to bolster a business have received their fair share of attention.
Earlier this year, one reporter demonstrated how, with a modest budget, it’s possible to create a good online reputation for a business that doesn’t exist.
But the services that make this possible are also being employed by unsavory companies to harm their competitors.
One local Boston business, Long’s Jewelers, saw its Facebook rating fall from 4.8 stars to 2.3 stars after being hit by 200 fake reviews that it believed were paid for by a competitor.
Facebook was initially unresponsive, but a public plea by Long’s Jewelers that went viral finally resulted in Facebook removing the fake reviews.
With a little bit of detective work, Lynelle Schmidt, an employee of Long’s Jewelers, tracked down the individual who wrote the fake reviews on Fiverr.com, the same freelancer service that was used by the aforementioned reporter to build an online reputation for a fake business.
Local businesses like Long’s Jewelers aren’t the only ones vulnerable to negative buzz caused by untruths.
In the past week retail giant Walmart found itself dealing with a viral video that it says was simply fiction.
The video, in which a woman discusses a customer service incident she claims occurred at a Walmart in Pueblo, Colorado, was posted to YouTube and racked up 25m views before it was made private.
Walmart says it reviewed surveillance video and spoke to the employee in question, and that the incident described in the woman’s YouTube video was a complete fabrication.
While the poster is sticking to her story, the matter highlights the fact that a single customer can force a billion-dollar company into the media spotlight, even if his or her statements are dubious.
What can companies do?
The old adage, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” has never been more true.
And unfortunately, companies have limited options for dealing with the online lies that can affect their businesses.
Many take the approach Walmart took: respond to, and dispute, reviews and claims that aren’t truthful.
While this doesn’t stop lies from spreading in the first place, such an approach can be effective in quashing negative buzz and demonstrating that a business is responsive.
Where a third-party service like Facebook is involved, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to get justice, but as the Long’s Jewelers experience demonstrates, a squeaky wheel will usually get grease.
There are also more aggressive tactics aggrieved companies can turn to.
Amazon itself recently filed a lawsuit against individuals who it alleges offered to write fake reviews on Fiverr.com for $5 a piece, and earlier this year filed a suit against a service called buyamazonreviews.com.
But lawsuits over untruthful reviews and online statements can be tricky.
What a business knows isn’t true might not be patently false to the public, and in many cases, there’s a fine line between a negative review and an untruthful review.
When customers and businesses clash, perspective often means that the truth lies somewhere in between both versions of the story.
While companies can prevail in defamation lawsuits, the costs are high, the risk of blow back is high, and thanks to businesses that have taken draconian steps to unfairly limit negative reviews, lawmakers in the United States are seeking to make it much more difficult for companies to sue their customers over online postings.
The good news for companies is that not all negative reviews prove to be harmful and the best practices for responding to negative reviews that can be applied even when those reviews make claims that aren’t true.
Coupled with a concerted effort to encourage more positive reviews, it’s possible for companies to ensure that the lies spread about them online are shot down almost as quickly as they spread and, in some cases, to turn lemons into lemonade.