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We recently explained some of the biggest myths in reputation management, like the idea that anything online can be erased, or that online opinions don’t matter. It’s clear that many people don’t completely understand what reputation management is all about, and without understanding, we’re all prone to making reputation mistakes.

We asked professionals in public relations and reputation management to share the biggest reputation mistakes they’ve seen businesses and individuals make. The consensus is clear: big problems like hotheaded responses, ignoring customers or feedback, posting fake reviews, and even suing your customers can do serious damage to your reputation. Read on to learn what the experts say are the biggest mistakes you can make in reputation management — and how you can avoid making them.

Getting Defensive

It’s normal to feel hurt or angry when a customer shares negative feedback about your business, but it’s important to keep cool. “I think a mistake a lot of businesses make when it comes to reputation management is getting too defensive or pointing fingers when dealing with negative feedback,” says eZanga.com digital content supervisor Brittany Berger. “It’s understandable, especially when dealing with a public forum such as one on the internet, to want to get the record straight and clear your name. But if you do this forcefully, you come off too strong and it can appear as though you’re attacking the original provider of feedback or questioning their feedback, or even their intellect.”

What can you do instead? “Side with the person giving negative feedback,” says Berger. “But frame the conversation differently. Never single them out or insinuate that they are at fault, and never try to displace the blame by bringing other businesses or individuals into the conversation, even if you don’t mention them by name. This just makes it look like you’re trying to deflect the problem.”

It’s also important to avoid making hasty decisions or responding before you’ve had a chance to calm down and assess the situation. “One of the biggest reputation management mistakes is rushing into responding to negative press,” digital marketing strategist Bradford Hines explains. “Sometimes people take what is a crisis, and instead of turning it into an opportunity, they make it worse by responding back with snark, or criticism of the party back. The best approach to answer in weighed and measured fashion, and consider that your response will be there nearly indefinitely, and will surely be seen by those interested in reading reviews of your business.”

Angie’s List director of communications Cheryl Reed relates, “No one likes criticism. It’s hard to hear. But if the truth is a harsh mistress, it’s also a great mirror.” She reminds businesses to avoid taking a defensive stance, and take a moment to let emotions clear before creating a response. “Never respond to a negative review in anger,” she says. “Take a walk. Have some coffee. Settle down. Then find out what really happened and make it right if that’s the right thing to do. Once you know all the facts, work on your response. You’d be amazed how many people will think more favorably about you if you can make it right.”

Reed encourages businesses to take a calm, careful approach to negative feedback. “A negative review is no cause to panic,” she says. “Take a thoughtful look at it before you do anything. If you’re in the wrong, offer an apology and an explanation. Say you want to make it right. If the customers won’t accept your efforts, say that. But don’t let the negative linger in the air without a response. Also, a simple thank you to a positive review is a great way to re-emphasize that you’re paying attention and that you care about your customers.”

Hiding from Problems

Though it’s important to not engage in hotheaded responses, ultimately, you’ll still need to respond. Ignoring important issues that call for your comments or apology is not a smart way to handle public relations, and it’s a good way to make your reputation take a nosedive.

Weaving Influence public relations director Megan Constantino once served as spokesperson for university that was notorious for not commenting on negative stories. “The President would almost hide, defer to me, or someone under him,” she says. This is a terrible strategy: it’s much better to get ahead of a story than have to react to it later.

Constantino shares an example of the mistake of hiding from problems: “A college basketball player was shot and in critical condition. The President wouldn’t say a word. He deferred all comments to me (from my 29 year old mouth) and on that day I was only allowed to say to the media, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the family but at this time we must defer to the local police department for questions.’ This is just one example of hundreds. He wouldn’t even make a public appearance and say, ‘I am praying. We love our students and will get through this together.’

“Any time a story was bad, the administration hid. It made any situation worse. Public speculation always led guilt even if they weren’t guilty! Today that university is gone, closed, lost accreditation. I have no doubt it was due to poor communication skills with their accrediting body rather than lack of educational quality. You have to be transparent and reliable with all stakeholders,” says Constantino.

Posting Fake Reviews

We know that fake reviews are never a good idea, and it’s often perfectly clear when business owners attempt to manufacture reviews. “As the owner of a review site for lawyers I have witnessed legal professionals who clearly try to manipulate their online reputation and professional presence,” says Matthew Reischer, CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “When I see lawyers who have never had a review on our site suddenly obtain several rave reviews — often two or three reviews in a day — I suspect manipulation is taking place.”

Of course, review sites like Reischer’s are careful to sniff out manipulation of reviews and have protocols in place to identify anyone trying to game the system. “We take our online reviews very seriously and monitor IP addresses so the giveaway is always the fact that real reviews should not originate from the same IP address,” says Reischer. And there are serious penalties and disadvantages for those who break the rules: “Anyone attempting to manipulate their online reviews on our site automatically becomes permanently flagged for manual review every 6 months. Attempting to manage your online reputation with fake reviews is a mistake because real reviews resonate in a way that are authentic, whereas fake reviews often fall flat.”

Reed insists, “It’s NEVER a good idea to plant or fake reviews either for yourself or against others.” Why? “A. It’s wrong to lie. B. You’re going to get caught. And C. The repercussions are far worse than any short-term benefit.”

Little Penguin Public Relations CEO Michelle Stansbury agrees that fake reviews will often do more harm than good. “Posting fake reviews, or “astroturfing” will diminish your company’s credibility,” she says. “Resist the urge to have friends or family write inflated reviews, as these are flagged as well. Instead, increase positive reviews by encouraging more customers to write reviews (many don’t think to do so unless there is a problem).”

Not Listening to Customers

Why do customers complain? It’s usually a matter or poor service, misunderstanding, or dissatisfaction. Many customer complaints can be prevented simply by listening to what they have to say. That’s why it’s important to set up channels where your customers can tell you, privately, what they wish you could have done better. Doing so can save you from embarrassing public feedback that may cost you future business and cause you to develop a negative reputation.

“Set up customer service initiatives so that dissatisfied customers feel that they can come to you with complaints, instead of going straight for the Internet,” says Stansbury. “It is much harder to get a reputation blunder OFF of the internet then it is to keep it from being posted in the first place.”

Jeff Kear, owner of Planning Pod, discovered the hard way that not listening to customers is a big mistake for customer service and reputation management. “For a few years, we did not offer a customer support phone number for our customers to call us directly, mainly because we did not believe we had the bandwidth to handle customer support calls,” explains Kear. “We did offer email support, but we quickly discovered that people who wanted to use our software were posting on Facebook, Twitter and other online portals that they were disappointed in not being able to call us.”

When Kear got to the root of the problem, he discovered that all his customers really wanted was a number to call and a live person to talk to. Planning Pod hadn’t realized this was so important, but quickly found out that it was an important solution they needed to pursue — and it really paid off. “We sent out a survey to our prospects who never became customers and discovered that the biggest impediment to them becoming a customer was a lack of a support phone number to call,” says Kear. “We discovered that our biggest reputation management mistake was not giving our customers and easier way to contact us and discuss their questions and issues. So we implemented a toll-free number a year ago and our revenues have increased 120% since then.”

Not Monitoring Your Reputation

Stansbury also identifies the failure to monitor reputation as a big mistake. Reputation management can’t be effective unless you know what you’re up against, and becoming aware means regular reputation monitoring. “Malicious reviews will stay visible unless you do something to get them removed,” says Stansbury. “But you can’t take steps to remove malicious reviews unless you know they are out there! I suggest weekly checks for smaller companies, daily checks for larger companies, and continual monitoring for global brands.

Kayvan Mott, Chief Creative Officer of Infinite Communications recommends taking a proactive approach as well. Mott says that it’s important to not put reputation management off until you notice a problem. “Unfortunately, most people wait for something negative to show up on page 1 of Google for their names before taking action to own their own social media profiles – ie. their Twitter, Google +, Facebook pages, etc,” says Mott. “It’s a big mistake to not have control of your profiles on all these growing popular social media platforms. It’s much easier to control your reputation when you have a long history of positive reviews & social media updates when that unfortunate bad review rears its ugly head.”

Reed points out that reputation monitoring isn’t just for sniffing out the negative; it’s about identifying positive feedback as well. “You’re not just missing alerts to mistakes you can correct; you’re missing happy stories about what you did right,” she says.

Not Asking for Reviews

Fabric Depot eCommerce Manager Siri Khalsa encourages business owners to not be shy about asking for reviews. “If you’re struggling to get more reviews, just ask! Every business has some customers who love their product/service and would be happy to let others know what they think.” Also keep in mind that by proactively asking for positive reviews, your business is less likely to be hurt by any negative reviews you may receive in the future.

Deleting Negative Comments

One surefire way to infuriate a customer who is already unhappy with you: silence them by deleting their comments. “When your company receives a negative comment or response from a disgruntled customer on your social media accounts, the absolute WORST thing you can do is press that delete button,” explains eZanga.com PR specialist Megan Ingenbrandt. “If you delete it, that is only going to anger them more – and the angrier they are, the more they are going to want to be heard. So they’ll post on other pages – whether it’s their own, other blogs, or they inundate your profiles with tons of messages.”

What’s a better way to respond? Ingenbrandt recommends that you answer each message calmly. It’s best to try to take the conversation offline by offering contact information. But perhaps most importantly, Ingenbrandt says, “assure them that you want to right whatever wrong has been done. Make it personal, and solve their problem by rebuilding their trust in your company.”

Directly and calmly dealing with negative comments on social media and other outlets is a good way to manage your reputation, and may even enable you to turn a negative customer situation into a positive one.

Not Controlling Your Identity

Identity theft and cases of mistaken identity are more common than you might think. With practically the entire population online these days, it’s easy for anyone to be confused with another person online, especially if you don’t have a unique name. The reputation danger in this situation is that anyone who shares your name can do serious damage to their reputation — and take yours down right with it.

“One young lawyer I know was shocked to find out that an attorney with with his same name has a bad reputation online,” says dean of Israel Business School Joseph Sherman. “When clients searched for this extremely ethical person, they saw posts about unfulfilled promises and pernicious behavior.” Clearly, this was a serious problem, but fortunately, one with a simple solution. “I advised him to use his full proper name,” says Sherman. “For example, changing his profile from John Doe to Benjamin Doe to avoid the problem.”

But more troubling than a mistaken identity is brazen identity theft. Sherman shares, “A computer programmer was horrified to find his photo and professional profile featured prominently on an outsourcing company. The company had pulled his information from Linkedin, and claimed that he, and others, worked for this bogus firm.” This is a tough situation, and there’s not much you can do to combat this problem, other than creating your own online presence that, with diligence and hard work, will beat out any impostors. “I advised him to write a complaint, but often it will not help,” says Sherman. “The best solution is to have a strong legitimate online presence.”

Norton Europe, Middle East & Africa social media communities and content manager Michael Baggs has seen this problem in large corporations as well. “The biggest reputation management nightmares I’ve seen have almost always come about because of poor internal communication,” says Baggs. “The PR or media team will know that an article or news item is incoming that will cause serious disruption to the company’s reputation, but won’t know who to warn.”

Every organization small and large should have a protocol for handling negative news before it becomes a problem, and understanding how news works and impacts reputation is especially important in this situation. “Once upon a time, this meant the company would get a selection of letters and phone calls complaining, these days however the wave usually breaks first on the social media team who’ve had no warning it was expected and have no response to offer the public,” says Baggs. “I’ve seen many a company freeze in this moment when the public are clamoring for a response.”

What is the best way to handle moments when you’re flabbergasted? “My top advice would be to put up a holding statement similar to ‘We are reading every single one of your messages, but unfortunately can’t respond right now. However, a full statement will come later,'” says Baggs. The biggest mistake you can make is not saying anything at all: “Not responding always translates to you not caring and just makes the public tweet louder, hoping to wake you up,” explains Baggs. “If the company has done something wrong, put your hand up and own the situation. Sometimes the best brand reputation management comes from openness and transparency. It certainly doesn’t come from putting your fingers in your ears and hoping the problem goes away.”

Suing Customers

Reputation problems can have a serious impact on your business. A collection of bad reviews, scathing news report, or customer who creates a negative website about your business can tank your opportunities for new and repeat customers. What can you do about it? You have options, but practically the worst way to handle it is by suing your customer.

Though we’ve seen a trend of negative reviews in the courts, it’s rarely a good idea to take your customers to court. First of all, these suits are difficult to win, but more importantly, they’re simply not a good way to handle a negative situation. One negative review or news story may get buried over time, but a lawsuit is likely to spur plenty of attention, and not the good kind. News about your lawsuit will permeate and stick with your company online and off, and the fact that you’ve sued your customer will sully your reputation whether you win or lose. It’s best to avoid suing customers unless you’re dealing with an extreme case that can’t be handled any other way.

“The worst rep management mistake is to sue your customer,” says Reed. “There may be some exceptions, but generally, going to court should be the resort you go to after you’ve used your last resort to no avail.”

Photo of Joseph Torrillo
About the Author

Born and proudly raised in Syracuse, NY, Joseph joined the team in 2008 as the Director of Reputation Management after earning his B.S. in Public Policy. He is now the Vice President of the department.

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