When bloggers attack

July 25, 2008: 10:55 AM ET

Online criticism can be hard to take. Lashing back isn't the answer - but a diplomatic response can turn the situation around.

Reese Adams, Lewis Advertising, Rocky Mount, N.C.
What is the current opinion on how to handle negative blog posts about your company or brand? Respond or don't respond?

By Kathleen Ryan O'Connor, Fortune Small Business contributor
Dear Reese: Many businesses, both large and small, are still grappling with Web 2.0 - so it's not surprising that your question drew a spirited response from bloggers, experts, and academics.

But before we relate their opinions, was there an easy consensus?

Yes. Respond. Honestly, quickly and transparently. In nearly every circumstance, our experts thought it was best to engage with bloggers and try to find common ground.

First, read the post carefully. Did the writer have a bad experience with your product or service? Don't try to sweep that under the rug - ask if you can fix it. Treat bloggers like valued customers. But if you believe they have a negative agenda or that they're armed with bad information, stand up for your business and set the record straight.

Investigate how the blog has handled such responses in the past - do they post corrections? Make sure you're prepared to back your claims. Consider setting up a link to a page where readers can access more information, and find advocates for your position, such as valued customers.

Before you hit "send," carefully reread your e-mail. While a traditional journalist rarely has the space to reprint a message in its entirety, a blogger can - and often will - do so, especially if it comes across as snide, exasperated, or unintentionally funny. Assume that everything you write could be reprinted in full, and proceed with caution.

Will Chen, editor of the personal finance blog Wise Bread: Living Large on a Small Budget, says he once wrote a "pretty critical post" about the privacy policy of Google (GOOG) Reader, which was later changed. According to Chen, many companies become emotional, or even hostile, when they come across unfavorable blog write-ups - a big mistake.

"When you encounter negative posts, see it as an opportunity," Chen says. Blogs, whether positive or critical, give companies access to a new audience. He says most bloggers want to be fair, but laughingly admits that "we have a certain egocentrism."

It's helpful to consider how a professional blogger operates. While a traditional news reporter might bang out one or two stories a day, a blogger could be under the gun for five to ten posts in as little time. Bloggers are out to get eyeballs: trackbacks, unique visitors, and repeat visitors are their badges of honor.

So use that to your advantage. Send bloggers information about your company, or offer to contribute your perspective on a subject that's relevant to your expertise. You could be providing them with the post they've been sweating over all morning.

But while it's often smart to engage with bloggers, there are some situations where silence is the best policy. Aaron Schoenherr, Chicago-based executive vice president of Greentarget, a PR firm, advises you to look at the blog itself. If it's an industry-specific outlet that critiques your work, you probably don't want to respond unless the writer is making a false accusation.

Ask yourself if the blogger is getting enough traffic to make it worth your time to respond. "Is the blog slick and professional, or was it made with a free template?," Schoenherr asks.

John Pearce, professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the Villanova School of Business, says: "If the attacker is mainly a nuisance with transparent motivations, whose wild claims appear on page three or later in your search engine listings, you can ignore him, as most other prospective customers will do."

But there are some sites that can't be ignored. For example, Yelp, a popular venue where customers post reviews of businesses, draws 10 million monthly unique visitors. Matt Dornic, president of 3 Dog Agency, a Washington-based PR agency that specializes in online reputation management, says you should bow to the power of Yelp's search placement.

"They're going to kick your butt no matter how great your search-engine optimization is," he says. Since you can't beat them, says Dornic, you should join them. "Sign up for the community, and be a true user: understand how it works, have a planned response to criticism, and review other people's businesses. I'm brutally honest on Yelp."

According to Dornic, bloggers can rarely ding a business with a transparent, expansive Web presence. It's easier to produce positive Internet hits than fix negative ones. To control your own search results - and crowd out unwanted hits - Dornic suggests creating avatars on different social networks, posting how-to videos, and even uploading Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr pictures from the company's holiday party. You can also piggyback on others' traffic by commenting on popular blogs. Be sure to provide your name and URL, but don't publish overly self-promotional or superfluous comments.

For an owner who doesn't have time to update a slew of sites, Dornic recommends channelme.tv, a service that enables you to upload videos and content to your own page. Dornic himself uses the site and says it's garnered him more hits than his professional home page.

If you feel that blog attacks are seriously damaging your business, consider calling in reinforcements. Pearce says it can be useful to engage the services of a professional online-identity management firm, but advises you to check whether it's worth your money. Some of these firms charge thousands, he says, to do what you can do on your own - create profiles on Facebook and Linkedin that will push back negative mentions in search engine results.

Businesses facing an abundance of posts can also hire companies to track their Internet appearances. "The blogosphere is a fluid thing," says Jeff Catlin, CEO of Lexalytics, an Amherst, Mass. firm that helps businesses manage information online. "You might not know about another post until it's too late." The average small-business owner, however, can catch references with Google alerts and determined surfing.

You should also pay attention to whether there are bloggers within your own ranks. Zach Hummel, an expert in labor and employment law and a partner in the New York office of Bryan Cave, handles cases involving negative blogs created by current and former employees. Hummel encourages small companies to develop a blogging policy to preclude such issues. "It's a protective measure that may be important in the long-term," he says.

Hummel adds that it's much more difficult to take non-employees to court for online slander. "The growth of blogging has been huge," he says, "and the legal system is still coming to grips with these things."

For now, you'll have to rely on your own policing - but keep in mind that it's generally wiser to be politely corrective than to act the part of vigilante.

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

Advertising your business online

Boost traffic to your Web site

How to keep your online reputation pristine

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