Barry Callen Sucks: Digital Smear Campaigns, Part 1

Gossip. Backstabbing. Rumor-mongering. Character assassination. Vague disinformation. Half-truths. Flaming.

The Internet takes talking behind your back, adds the safety of an anonymous e-mail name and address, and turbocharges it with the lightning speed of a free 24/7 global podium.

This is word-of-mouth with a vengeance.

I have seen a slightly mentally-unbalanced and misinformed employee bring two large corporations to a standstill with one well-placed and innuendo-filled e-mail that was taken seriously by a dirt-digging junior newspaper reporter trying too hard to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Research revealed this employee had made a habit of “whistleblowing” on previous employers in order to get media attention as a virtuous rescuer.

I have known of angry competitors and fired subcontractors and employees who headed for the service rating sites and systematically and anonymously dropped the “objective” rankings of a supplier.

In the court of public opinion, there are no retrials.

If you are a company or a brand, this is the point where you realize that the computer has put most of the power in the hands of John Q. Public. What’s a brand manager to do?

Let’s start with what you should NOT do.

Above all, don’t overreact. Too much paranoid behavior and the good guys lose and the bad guys win.

Yes, when you’re in the situation, this will be challenging. Unfortunately, open attack or contact with the disgruntled only fuels their desire to do more because they get to see you squirm. You hurt them, now they get to hurt you, and it pleases them to be taken seriously and be perceived as important enough to be a threat worthy of response from big, powerful you.

Ultimately, time will heal this wound. The negative reviews will become dated, and the employee will achieve some weird level of satisfaction and move on.

In the event you are dealing with an obsessive, paranoid, or mentally ill person who will continue forever and escalate their attacks, I recommend the book, The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. He provides a market segmentation and profile of different crazies and how to either handle or not handle them.

An equally important don’t is don’t lie. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of lies and slander, especially when dollars and client relationships are on the line. But this is no time to make statements that you’re not sure of. If the facts presented by the disgruntled employee are partially true, admit them and change them. The worst thing you can do is lie or deny the truth and get caught.

Don’t take the chance. Tell the truth.

Don’t be surprised if the e-thorn in your side is a current employee who should be on your side, or a former employee helped by a current employee, someone who might surprise you. Job one is to prevent further damage. Without getting too paranoid, do a confidential analysis of any other information that employees might have that could hurt you if it got out, and think about prevention strategies internally. The trick is not to isolate management, appear paranoid, or tip off the disgruntled that they are having some effect. This is a worthy exercise to do even in the best of times.

In Part II of this article, we’ll look at what you can do when your reputation is being smeared digitally. Meanwhile readers, if you have nightmare stories or happy endings or helpful advice you’d like to share, I encourage you to write in. It would help us all. And if you don’t, you suck and I’m going to let everyone know (anonymously, of course).

Stayed tuned for Part II, coming July 2009.