Padrica Norfleet knew she was under a massive attack last month when her company’s Facebook page was targeted with hateful and racist rants and postings — even a video of a Klu Klux Klan cross burning.
Norfleet owns Naturalista Cosmetics, a Falls Church, Va., company that provides hair- and personal-care products for women of color.
“We were being worked by four or five racists back-to-back,” Norfleet said. She knew instantly her page was being targeted. “We deleted the offenders and they would come back as a different person and continue to harass us.”
The attacks were so offensive, local media took note and police and the FBI got involved. Having the FBI investigate was a strong deterrent, she said.
Norfleet’s situation generated an outpouring of support after her story was broadcast by a Washington television station.
“I went public because I had no choice,” Norfleet said. “This is unacceptable. I am a firm believer that ignoring a problem will not help the solution. I owed it to my heritage to stand against this and not back down. It’s 2011, enough is enough.”
Be it something as extreme as the attack on Norfleet’s company Facebook page, an unwanted news item, an unfavorable business review or even some regrettable lapse in judgment — items that affect your online image or that of your business are increasingly becoming major problems that need to be solved.
Once Norfleet’s story became public, she said, the attacks diminished, but they have not completely ended. It’s unknown what impact any law enforcement investigations might have.
Julie Spira has a less painful story, but one all too common online these days.
In 2004, Spira discovered that her New York Times wedding announcement showed up on the first page of a Google search of her name. By that time divorced, Spira thought having a wedding announcement show up in a search, “about my starter marriage in the ‘80s wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have,” she said.
Spira contacted The Times, Google and other search engines, but had no luck getting the announcement removed from archives. She said all of the sites told her a wedding announcement is public record, and wouldn’t be removed. Reputable news organizations do not change archived news, except in the case of corrections or clarifications.
Spira has had some success driving the announcement off the front page of a Google search. She created a personal website and several business websites. She created business profiles on LinkedIn, Google and Plaxo.com — an online address book seen by search engines. She also created personal and business profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and other social networking sites. Her efforts worked — to an extent.
Over a year, Spira was able to push the Google ranking of the wedding announcement down from number one to between number five and 11.
That’s far enough down that it no longer bothers Spira. “Fresher content has certainly helped,” she said.
An ounce of prevention
Social media experts say the best way to deal with unwanted information or bad publicity is to begin by being very diligent about what you publish online and be aware of what might be published about you. While some things can be handled directly, other problems may require the help of a professional.
To begin with, don’t publish inflammatory material yourself. If someone else begins the attack, even if it’s over benign material, trying to fight it yourself may not be the best approach. In these days of instant everything, taking a year to nudge unwanted Google search results downward may not be the answer.
“Until two years ago, I used to say there is a lot you can do yourself,” said Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com. Creating your own website and posting new content that includes your name or your company’s name used to be a good beginning. But the problem of defending your online reputation has now become so complex, “I stopped saying that,” said Fertik. “I believe people absolutely need professional help.”
A lot of what Fertik and others now work on is on the back end of web searching. Fertik wouldn’t go into detail about exactly what methods and technology his company uses, but said the end result, when it works, helps drive down offensive and detrimental information and web pages.
Basic understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) is not wrong, Fertik said. “But it’s no longer the latest, greatest stuff. It’s just very incomplete.”
Attacks can now come in multiple languages. They can be a single comment blown out of proportion. They can be multiple attacks and even one or more web pages devoted to trashing your name or company. Individuals can take it upon themselves to routinely and repeatedly attack you over time.
Fertik said these are all different sources of content that are very negative for people. Some are unintentional, some are deliberate, some are very old, some are linked, some are static. Some online attacks are written by one person, others by many people. “Each has to be addressed with a specific strategy to combat them,” Fertik said.
Fertik said prevention is less costly than remediation. “It could cost us $200 to prevent a problem you have from showing up on page one of a Google search, and it may cost us $4,000 to solve it once it actually does show up.”
Honesty is the best policy
Norfleet’s story is one about an external attack. In Spira’s case, she wanted more recent information to more accurately reflect her online identity.
But sometimes, people just make mistakes online.
“One of the best things you can do is not screw up in the first place,” said Peter Shankman, a social media consultant for Fortune 100 companies, based in New York. But “we’ll all screw up, everyone screws up. I screwed up as early as this morning,” he added.
Shankman recommended that you don’t shirk from a disaster. “Own it, own it, own it. You screwed up. The company screwed up. Admit that you screwed up and move on,” he said. The first critical steps to take when a disaster strikes, Shankman said, are to accept responsibility, explain what you’re doing to fix the mess and explain how you’re going to make sure it’s never going to occur again. And then, move on.
“The worst thing you can do is to deny it, or try to deflect blame,” he said. “The second you try to deflect blame, people seem to know it almost immediately and they start commenting that you’re not really taking responsibility or you’re just trying to push the problem around.”
The best way to shut down rumors, or shut down innuendo, or shut down any problem is to simply get in front of the situation, Shankman said. Admit what happened, write a blog post about it, post it on Facebook. Whatever the problem is, get in front of it. Know who your audience is, too. “If your audience is entirely on Facebook, and you apologize on Twitter, that’s not going to do a lot,” he said.
Shankman has seen situations where someone makes a joke and it falls flat. He said they have two options. If they really believe what they said was benign, they can defend it, and they’ll lose some people. Yet they might gain some people for their honesty. Or, they can admit they made a mistake and say “I was wrong. Here’s what I learned from it, we’re all human.”
“I think that the internet is strangely forgiving to those who are willing to admit and take the blame,” he said.
But when it’s a huge political mistake, or a major social blunder, outside help is probably needed. “What might be a joke when you’re saying it to a few friends isn’t necessarily that same joke when it reaches 100,000 people,” Shankman said. When that happens it’s time to call in the experts.
Jason Hennessey, co-founder of EverSpark Interactive, an SEO agency based in Atlanta, Ga., said, “The sad truth of the matter is that, no matter what anyone tells you, these sites are not going to remove comments or take down reviews.”
Hennessey noted websites have some protection under provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and most are not legally obligated to remove posted information. As long as the review or item is not threatening or harassing, there is little one can do to have it removed.
Hennessey said suing is usually not a good option because it will generally cost more than it is worth. The best thing you can do if your online reputation has been jeopardized is to consult and enlist the help of web professionals.
Hennessey said be wary of companies who promise permanent removal of damaging reviews or to make negative search results disappear.
“Be sure to do your homework on the company,” Hennessey said. “Stick with reputable companies who will not fill your head with false promises and use companies that will only practice proper SEO techniques.