Apr 13, 2009

Is Bad Publicity Better Than No Publicity? Not Necessarily in an Internet Age

You've probably heard the saying that bad publicity is better than no publicity.  But that's not necessarily true in this cache-and-carry-on-forever Internet age, where Google continues to shine light on your darkest hours long after the controversy has died down. 

As a result, more than ever, lawyers must be vigilant about our online profiles -- in an an Internet age, our online reputation invariably precedes us.  Increasingly, clients are turning to the Internet to find lawyers.  And even those clients who locate lawyers through offline sources like newspaper ads or personal referrals routinely turn to Google to ferret out additional information.

To complicate matters further, there's now myriad ways for disgruntled clients or colleagues to disseminate unflattering information.  From lawyer rating sites to individual blogs to newspaper articles that remain online and uncorrected long after an unflattering incident has passed, it's never been easier to drum up dirt on anyone.

So what's a lawyer to do?  We're all familiar with ways to harness the power of Internet to attract business; indeed, I've posted on many of those techniques here in my blog.  But today, I'll focus on the flip side: how to use the Internet to avoid losing business as a result of rumors, criticisms, or other negative information that resides online.

1.  Guard Your Reputation As Zealously As You Represent Clients

Perhaps the most important step that lawyers can take to avoid fallout from negative information is to continuously and vigorously monitor their respective online reputations  If that sounds time-consuming, it doesn't have to be.  Over at Hubspot, you can find out how to monitor your social media presence in just ten minutes a day.  Tips that apply to lawyers include:
  1. checking Twitter for chatter about your company and using search tools like TweetDeck or TwitterSearch to monitor conversations in real time
  2. setting and then checking Google Alerts for your name or those of cases or client matters you're working on
  3. looking for questions to answer on LinkedIn (answering questions can increase positive search engine visibility), and
  4. using Google to track other social networking sites and, in particular, blogs, where a colleague may have criticized a posting or commented negatively on the way in which you handled a case. 
In addition to these general social networking sites, lawyers should regularly monitor sites like Avvo which allow clients to post ratings and opinions, and other similar sites where clients are permitted to comment or review lawyers.  And don't forget to keep an eye on sites like LinkedIn, where colleagues can post testimonials.

2.  If You Find Something Positive, Reinforce It

Of course, lawyers are most interested in dealing with negative information and I'll get to that issue in a moment.  However, even when you find positive comments, you should respond with a thank you.  Clients and colleagues who take the time to praise something you've done can serve as your greatest allies if you ever need to undertake damage control against unfair criticism or unflattering commentary.  Take the time to cultivate your own personal vigilante group who can go on the offensive for or with you.

3.  Dealing With Negative Information

So what can you do if you uncover negative or unflattering information about yourself?  First, depending on the information and the site where you found it, ignoring the information might make the most sense.  As this Freelance Folder post suggests, when the comments are clearly from a source that's not credible, you are probably best off ignoring them rather than drawing further attention. 

However, if negative information comes up high in search engine results, then, credible or not, you've probably got to take some action.  First, you can step up your online activity at your blog which should generate positive search results -- which will hopefully relegate the negative information several pages back in a Google search.  But you'll also need to take more direct action -- such as calling out your vigilantes and asking them to respond to the negative commentary either on their blog or at the site where the comments are located. 

You could also consider contacting the site owner and asking for removal of the information.  In many cases, a site owner will be accommodating where negative commentary is posted by a third party.  However, most bloggers who write a criticism will be reluctant to remove it; perhaps the best you can hope for is an opportunity to lodge a response.

You may also want to take the opportunity to explain a situation head on.  In some instances, past grievance decisions against lawyers are available online for clients to discover.  If a disciplinary action is minor -- for example, you didn't pay your bar dues in a timely manner, or the bar penalized you for minor and inadvertent trust account errors -- you might consider linking to the order and posting an explanation on your website.  It's true that this approach is risky as you might draw more attention to the grievance than if you'd just let it alone.  On the other hand, if you believe that the grievance has so much prominence that it's driving away business, you really have nothing to lose.

4.  Defamatory Information

Sometimes, you may find information that isn't just unflattering but downright defamatory. In that situation, consult with a defamation lawyer to obtain an objective opinion.  This is one type of case where you don't want to represent yourself because if you overreact, your response will attract more attention than the underlying information.

In addition, take a look at this excellent article, It's All Lies! by Meredith Levinson at CIO which examines your options for responding to defamatory information and tips on seeking its removal from Google so that the information doesn't linger in perpetuity.  And for a more in-depth discussion of the complex issues regarding our reputation in the Internet age, you can download a copy of Professor Dan Solove's book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet.

Conclusion

As use of social media, Web 2.0, and user-generated content and applications increase, so too does the potential for negative commentary regarding our work as lawyers.  Essentially, we lawyers have no choice: We can either monitor and strategically address what's written and how it impacts to our reputation... or not.  Withdrawing from or avoiding social media altogether makes the problem worse because it won't stop the attacks and leaves us defenseless.  For that reason alone, lawyers should engage social media -- if not to attract business, than to guard against losing it.