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5 ways NOT to handle reputation management

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The big BP oil spill has me thinking a lot about reputation management. British Petroleum handled things well, responding fast, expressing dismay, forking over cash, etc..

Then the finger pointing began: The feds point at BP. BP points at the oil rig owner. The rig owner points at Halliburton (remember them?). The installer points at the cook. And so on. BP could have taken the high road, but as the blame game goes on they sound more and more defensive.

So, when your company starts gushing oil into the ocean, or sewage onto the internet, and you need to deal with it, here’s what not to do:


First reflex of any corporate executive, upon seeing negative press on the web, is to start posting angry responses. Everywhere. On your blog, in letters to the editor, doesn’t matter. They’re going to get their point of view heard, dammit!

Please stop. The best case is that everyone ignores your spluttering. The worst case is that even your most eloquent defense makes you look like a whiner.

Result: You look like a defensive blowhard with too much time on your hands.

Alternative: Shut up. Wait a while. See if other people who aren’t connected with your company jump in to defend you. If they do, thank them. That’s it.

Alternative 2: Express chagrin. If you just can’t be quiet, write something like “I’m sorry about the oil slick you can see from space. BP is dedicated to improving the environment, and will be using some of our newest technologies to help rehabilitate the Gulf Coast.” I will still hate you, but with some small bit of sympathy, or at least a diminished desire to dump 5,000 oil-soaked oil company execs in front of Congress.

Make them an offer they can’t refuse

The CEO’s next temptation: Send in the lawyers, who can then employ their sharp teeth and sandpapery skin to make a bloody mess of all tormentors.

I’ve never received a cease-and-desist order (shocking, I know) but those who do proudly post them on their sites. Then they keep right on ripping you to shreds.

Result: You look like a bully, and everyone assumes the bad press must be right.

Alternative: Shut up. Don’t use lawyers. Don’t threaten. Don’t even breath hard.


This is one of my favorites: You see a negative review about you in the search engine rankings. The review in question has 200 comments from folks who agree that you suck. Your response? Get 200 other people to declare your awesomeness.

Result: You boost the negative review to the top of the rankings and pin in there like a huge, dead skunk. In reputation management, QDF is not your friend.

Alternative: Shut up. Do some smart SEO reputation management, or hire someone who can. Prepare to pay a lot of money, because yeah, this stuff is pretty hard.


BP is presenting this one now: Deny responsibility no matter what.

Result: The more you deny, the more your audience attributes guilt.

Alternative: This is a tough one. In my experience, if you try to be professional, forge ahead and deal with a problem you didn’t cause, the other party takes this as acceptance of guilt, and you’re screwed. But they were going to do that anyway, most likely, so why waste the effort? Instead, keep a record of what’s been done. Write down what you think the cause was. After the crisis, open a discussion.

Say Nothing

One last reputation management gaffe: Say nothing. Don’t comment on the crisis. Don’t post anything on your site. Whatever you do, don’t explain what you’re doing to fix it. People might start assuming you care. Next thing you know, they’ll be pestering you for things like customer service and quality. Bleah.

Result: Total disaster. Your audience draws their own conclusions and runs with them, taking the entire crisis so far beyond your control you might as well move to Mexico and assume a new name.

Alternative: Just because I said “shut up” to 3 out of 5 of these doesn’t mean you should be silent. Communicate in a firm, engaged tone. Explain what’s being done to fix the problem. Or, if you’re being falsely accused by a hackjob like Ripoff Report, shut up.

Think like an advocate, act like the audience

The short version: You’re an advocate for your company. Something’s happened to make your company look bad (rightfully or not), and you want to defend yourself. You should feel that way. If you don’t, you’d better find another job.

But you need to act like you’re in your audience’s shoes. If you were them, what would you want to hear? Give them that.

People say I’m too negative, because I always write lists like “22 ways big dumb companies screw up” and “15 things your boss did to screw up your marketing campaign”. Well, I’m sorry. It’s just who I am. Also, as soon as I can look around and see more positive examples than negative, I will commence shoveling out so much sweet positivity you’ll get nauseous.

CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. Great post, its amazing how many big companies get it wrong when it comes to admissions of fault and defending their company particularly when its in the wrong, and the BP crisis was a great analogy.

  2. Beautiful. You’ve summed it up perfectly here. Blaming other people comes off as childish. If there’s anything I know about America, it’s that we’re willing to forgive.
    IF the company/individual owns up to their mistakes and also goes on Oprah. 😉
    Hey, this is a cool blog. If you’re looking for a guest blogger let me know.
    Mike Antoni

  3. I am a bit late reading this but it all goes back to this blame culture. It must always be some body else’s fault. The UK is just as bad. What happened to customer centered business and responsibility.

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