Old adages prescribing a strong offense as a good defense have been digitally reborn.
As the Internet, now available in a palm near you, permeates deeper into everyday life, online reputations become paramount. Personally and professionally, what search engines say matters most. Digital credibility is our first and best hope of attracting others. Word of mouth has bowed to word of Google.
In this context, a little negativity goes a long way - and overcoming damaging digital digs sometimes requires a crusade.
Pile on the positive
Professional online reputation defenders - a thriving industry - universally agree that negative content is often forever. There are plenty of fake reviews posted by underhanded competitors, and some can be removed, but most digital disses involve real customers, real complaints and real First Amendment rights.
Plan A, then: Bury that negativity. By out-posting them with business-building blogs, friendly customer reviews and other positive content, defenders strive to push haters to the back of the search-results line.
"You need to circulate as much information that portrays you in a positive light as you can," said Cindy LeClaire, founder and CEO of Southold-based Web Perseverance Inc. "The goal is to have that bad press go away in the search."
LeClaire does Internet marketing and development for a national roster of clients, and also provides "reputation management" services, usually starting with an investigation of the negativity.
"You have to find the source," LeClaire said. "I always tell clients to contact the person or company who's doing it and find out ... where they got their information. A lot of times, it's incorrect."
This direct approach doesn't always fly. "If you can't contact them or they won't answer you, you have to launch a campaign," LeClaire noted, citing a regimen of blogs, press releases and email blitzes. "Whatever topic the bad press is talking about, you need to write the truth about it ... and you need to keep writing it."
Udi Eshel, CEO of Internet strategy consultancy VirtuosOnline, has defended online reputations of both individuals and organizations and agreed that identifying the online attacker is a good first step. In his experience, particularly in corporate settings, digital deathblows are often shams.
"In most cases, it's the competition doing it," he said. "Specific industries - the moving industry, for instance - are very competitive. Many people do these black-hat techniques and post negative reviews just to make the competition look bad."
Eshel, whose firm operated out of New York City exclusively until expanding to Los Angeles last year, also noted plenty of genuine negativity "from actual customers," not to mention unfavorable press coverage. But wherever deleterious data originates, he said, there are "several strategies that eventually help us create a positive image."
"We try to get more positive reviews posted about the client," Eshel said. "And by making sure the negative reviews that aren't legit are removed, we make sure our customers' reputation stays positive."
Litigation a losing battle
For others, the battle centers on understanding the Internet's rhythms. Michael Fertik, founder of Redwood City, Calif.-based Reputation.com (formerly ReputationDefender.com), cites a 200- person staff replete with "Ph.D.s in mathematics and quantum mechanics and economics," because "these are the skill sets needed to really understand the computations of the Internet."
Fertik's theory is that every piece of online negativity doesn't necessarily damage a business no more than every positive tidbit sends sales soaring. Knowing "why certain content comes up more than others," he said, is key.
"If you understand that, you can fix it," he said. "Otherwise, you're just throwing darts at a board."
Fertik, a New York native who graduated from Harvard Law School (he never took the bar), boasts customers in over 100 countries and on Long Island, which has "all the right demographics." The bulk of Reputation.com's business comes from doctors, lawyers, hotels and restaurants, he said, but in all industries, understanding online information's "actual visibility" matters most.
"If you have a positive piece of information on the Internet that's hard to find and nobody sees it, it's not going to do you much good," he said. "Similarly, if something is negative but nobody sees it, you don't want to overreact. It's only when something is very negative and very visible that you want to do something about it."
Citing "the Streisand Effect" - a phenomenon wherein attempting to suppress information stokes public interest in it, as when Barbra sued to stop publication of a photo of her home - Fertik said the last place a company should seek help with online reputation defense is in court.
"You call a lawyer, the lawyer sends some threatening letters and it just gets worse," he said. "It's almost always useless."
Even lawyers agree. Garden City attorney Paul Senzer - who specializes in "professional reputation defense" of licensed professionals like teachers and X-ray technicians - cited few legal remedies for damaged online reputations.
"People have a First Amendment right to speak their minds, and even make mistakes sometimes," he said. "You really have to show malevolence to have an actionable defamation lawsuit."
Senzer once represented a CPA who was "done dirty by a disgruntled soul online," a "galling" attack that damaged the accountant's credibility. "We went to state Supreme Court and attempted to do something, but it was very difficult to control," the attorney said. "Defamation is difficult to prove ... you really have to show there was a venal purpose to it all."
Victory through vigilance
If negative content can't be removed by legal or other means, the only option, insiders say, is to reinvigorate your reputation. "You basically promote 10 other websites with positive things to say, so the negative one will not be at the top (of search-engine results)," Eshel said. "It's very similar to search-engine optimization."
The CEO cited the recent case of a well-credentialed professional having trouble getting hired. An investigation turned up a 1998 newspaper article filled with unflattering accusations. "It doesn't really matter if he did it or not," Eshel noted. "Just the fact that people could see he was accused ... hurt him."
VirtuosOnline launched a positivity campaign that included creation of a "mini-site" for the client - "like a website, only smaller," Eshel said, "focused completely on him." LeClaire has employed similar tactics in her defense of a prominent Carle Place law firm locked in a digital duel with a large insurance company.
In an online news article "that won't go away," the insurers slice up LeClaire's client. In response, LeClaire cited an ongoing and "very aggressive reputation-management campaign."
"We have three blogs with the firm's partners and ... we post about 30 posts per month," she said. "Still, every couple of months, that article keeps creeping up (search engine results). Once you slack off on your marketing efforts, it starts moving up.
"People think, 'I paid a couple of hundred dollars and it's going to go away,' but it doesn't work like that," LeClaire added. "You have to continually market yourself. That link might be gone today, but in a month or so, it'll be back."