The price of “free speech” – Why you can’t be sure who you are talking with.

I’ve a series of articles on free speech and why the internet has anything but coming very soon.  My free time has been taken up of late with a documentary I’m participating in so I will start off by apologising for the lack of updates on OpenBytes (and indeed the TechBytes audiocast).  I’ve been quite active over on G+ and the ability to simply message, link and comment from an Android Smartphone has seen me more involved over there for the past few months.

So today I look at free speech, with consideration to those companies who seek to manage it.  Before I go any further I must mention the company I highlight here (Reputation.com) has not been specific in what (if any) tactics it would employ against those who’s comments conflict with their clients “vision”.  I digress.  Here’s the history:

Over the past few months there has been an advert on a local talk radio station advertising a company called “Reputation.com” – Offering services which would appear to monitor & safeguard your online reputation. – A bad thing? Well since its taken a considerable time to get a reply from a few points I put to them, I’d expect any further answers to be equally as slow.  Here’s what the website says and I urge you to follow the link in order for you to draw your own opinions on what exactly it is that they offer.

Protect Your Online Reputation From Negative Search Results…

http://uk.reputation.com/

Obviously there is more to the site/service than merely that statement, but it sets the tone for why I was interested in what they offered.  How do they protect you from negative search results? I put the following to them:

How exactly do you achieve your goals or campaigns…. What lengths do you go to in “online reputation” and more importantly when someone exercises free speech which doesn’t favour the contract you have been given, what do you do?

I would be very interested to hear more about “reputation management”….. to me it sounds very much like hiring a shill….maybe I’m wrong there…..maybe you could elaborate?

And approximately 4 weeks later I received a response.  Presumably monitoring their own online presence is not as much of a priority as that of their clients?

Hello and apologies for our late reply.

Online reputation management encompasses a variety of activities, all conducted within an ethical framework.  An example would be helping a company to monitor and manage its online reviews. Our cloud-based platform enables real-time alerts when new reviews are posted, analysis of trends in the reviews (is sentiment changing?), and the ability to respond directly to reviews. We counsel clients in how to respond professionally and productively to resolve issues and convey responsivenss. We also help them create a culture where they proactively ask all customers to leave accurate feedback on review sites (while never paying for reviews, incentivizing customers to leave them, or writing reviews themselves). Over time, we’ve seen that this causes the reviews to come into a balance where what’s online matches the reality of the business in real life. We also remind our clients that negative reviews can also highlight genuine issues that must be addressed by the company – and people take note of responsiveness. And, of course, we don’t (and can’t) remove negative reviews. Hope this helps you.

So there is the reply.  A very polite answer which really doesn’t answer anything at all.  “Ethical framework”? – Who’s ethics are those based on? Can we see?

A “great” example is given of helping a company monitor its online reviews….what? today’s business can’t use Google? it’s really that difficult to find out the big name sites where your product will be discussed? People pay for that?

Our cloud-based platform enables real-time alerts when new reviews are posted

What sort of company/product needs realtime alerts to consumers opinions/reviews? And what would be done when a real time alert pops up that doesn’t favour the client?  Why is that sort of information needed in realtime unless the intent of their client is to somehow silence or “damage control” it?   That does though explain what I already suspected over the years of writing articles (and seeing some very strange incoming links) that this practice is certainly not unique to Reputation and its been going on for some time.

We also help them create a culture where they pro-actively ask all customers to leave accurate feedback on review sites….

What? Send them an email? Have a one time feature within the software/product for easy review?  And if the reviewer/consumer genuinely doesn’t like the product, how are you to:

Protect Your Online Reputation From Negative Search Results…

and thats the part that concerns me about services such as this.  The answers given to me in my view are vague to say the least and to me, either Reputation.com is offering services which could be done by even the most non-tech savvy person on the planet, or there are other concerning questions about services such as these.  How do you incentivize or encourage a review without an incentive? – If its a good product you don’t need to and wouldn’t need to hire a company like Reputation.com  Which then raises another question, how would they offer this:

 removing and suppressing negative content from your search results,

that’s another part of the service taken from the Reputation.com site.

So lets get this straight, they will get people to leave reviews without gifts or incentives of any kind.  They will give you realtime results and will remove and suppress negative content from search results? How? What if your product/service is not liked? Will they still suppress a clients negative remarks if the fault lies with the product?  Who knows, they haven’t elaborated on that.

I am sure Reputation.com is not unique in the service it offers, but it came to my attention as a result of local radio advert.  Does this sound like the sort of service the average listener on a local radio would want? – Very strange.

Reputation.com has over 1 million clients, in over 100 countries globally, all taking advantage of our market leading online reputation management services and patented technology.

Ensure you stay in control of how you or your business are perceived online today.

Again from the site and again raises the worrying question, how do they achieve these aims?  What are they prepared to do so that negatives are suppressed? I questioned the practice of incentivizing (and highlighted the free laptops to bloggers – https://openbytes.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/microsoftmas-come-early/

Maybe the ultimate test will be how they will (or will not) deal with this article.

Kindly Reputation.com provided another response which I quote here (paragraphing mine):

No, to clarify: you should never incentivize for reviews (even a coupon) nor should you write reviews of your business.

No, we would never employ negative tactics against posters who were critical of our clients – that’s why we counsel our clients in how to directly interact with posters in a positive, professional manner. The goal is always to resolve the issue productively. And we tell companies that reviews can showcase what you need to change – if there are consistent issues, to your point, then the reviews are accurate and highlighting problems that you need to fix. If companies show responsiveness and action, consumers tend to be more forgiving.

What we find with many of our clients is that they are small or medium businesses who are aware that they need to pay attention online but don’t have the resources, knowledge or time to do it. We can help get them started on the best approach. Frequently, these businesses have a satisfied customer base that never thinks to write reviews – so when the occasional bad review pops up, it’s not truly reflective of what the business is like in real life.

I hope my channel of communication continues with Reputation.com as there are still questions I have regarding some of the claims on their site, however it should be noted that Reputation.com is not the only company offering a service such as this and whilst this article concentrates on the rights and wrongs of monitoring and “suppressing” bad reviews/PR, there is no real indication yet as to how Reputation.com achieves this.  Maybe Reputation.com will be the company which sets an example to all others as to how these services should operate?

I’ll leave you with this quote from a previous article of mine where I reported about a blogger talking about gifts:

But if you write about Microsoft, they might even give you one for free. Is it ethical? Probably not. Is it worth something to hard-working sweat and tears bloggers? Hell yeah.

And I suggest that’s why positive reviews can often be viewed with suspicion and maybe getting any 3rd party involved in your online perception is a bad idea.  Good products and services will always shine and are not shouted down by a minority.  If many people are complaining about your product, then its you with the problem and doing anything but rectifying the product/service is not the direction you should be heading, lest you end up in the situation many Microsoft product posts are where good remarks are always labelled “shill”.

UPDATE: Thursday 4th April 2013

I received this following reply from Reputation.com which I’d like to share now (paragraphing mine):

Hi, Tim. We help clients manage and monitor their reviews and encourage their customers to post new, accurate reviews. We understand it can be surprising to some (like people web-sophisticated enough to know Usenet!) that companies might need help in this area – but did you know 60 percent of UK small businesses didn’t even have a website (according to this Guardian article? http://www.guardian.co.uk/small-business-network/2012/oct/19/businesses-need-websites). It’s an astonishing statistic and highlights the fact that many are still figuring out how best to wade in the water of the web (if you will). Perhaps then it’s not so surprising that even good businesses may be unsure how to address reviews appropriately.

Regarding the other product that you’ve asked about, we do not remove negative content ever (and thank you for highlighting this erroneous language on our website, which we’ve since removed). We help professionals and businesses establish their presence online through crafting factual content, setting them up on social media, etc. This establishes a foundation of accurate information so that when others encounter additional material, including out of date, misleading, or inaccurate information, during their research, they have a better basis to make an informed assessment. Thanks again for writing to us and all the best.

So there’s the response.  I’ve asked if a member of Reputation.com would be interested in a conversation for a piece on the TechBytes show, I hope they are as willing to engage there as they have been over the past few days.  It was also nice to see that on me highlighting potential “perception” issues of Reputation.com (most notably the wording “suppress”) they have removed the wording.  A company that does not engage in dubious tactics would not want to be associated with those that do, those I hasten to add which we will be looking at more closely in the weeks to come.  It’s seems that Reputation.com is what it says on the tin and whilst the whole issue of needing “reputation management” in the first place may seem a little wrong to people (in this age of free speech) at least Reputation.com has been quite upfront about what they will and won’t do – That’s to be applauded in itself.

Tim W

bytes4free@googlemail.com

https://plus.google.com/u/0/114824920343832764896/posts

6 Comments Add yours

  1. I am curious on the concept of “balancing” positive & negative here. The explanation is about “encouraging genuine good reviews from genuine customers who may never have considered writing a review”. The problem is that no two reviews are ever equal.

    If I write a snarky blog post on a service I received, or a product I’d bought, I’m as anonymous as most people on the internet; ie, only a handful of people read my posts, and they don’t spread it further.

    If Linus writes the exact same post (in his own words obviously), he has millions of people read and comment, many of them will share it on other sites, it’ll become a discussion topic on many podcasts and may even reach the mainstream media, where it’ll get a whole new fanning of the flames.

    It’s the same thing, but from two different people with vastly different reaches, and therefore damage or enhancement to a reputation.

    You can’t easily say “oh Linus wrote this negative post, let’s encourage Gordon to write a praising post” and think that one balances the other. The only way that can possibly happen is if the reputation management company have an arsenal of influential contacts, to call upon to equalize the damage; which suggests they want to game the media.

    The other option is the obvious solution combo when you think of “reputation management”, first you abuse the DMCA to use some spurious copyright / trademark whatever claim to have the negative post removed, then you use shills to discredit the person who wrote it so they don’t get uppity and write a second post……or reword it to remove the accusation of copyright etc.

    I’d like to know from this particular company if they only hire their services to ethical companies. The description states that it’s about bringing an accurate reputation to the surface, what if the company ARE scumbags and the negative reviews ARE an accurate reflection? Do they still play the whitewashing game? Or do they stand true to their statements about wanting a “true reflection” to stand?

    What happens if customers aren’t interested in leaving positive reviews? Are they “incentivised”? The fear of something negative is just as much of an incentive as being rewarded with something good. Look at how many customers who’s complaints get the “embarrassing TV or radio interview” level for a company, but insist on remaining anonymous for fear of reprisals from the company they’re complaining about.

    Speak out against the landlord & your rent doubles, lots of extras get added to your rent and he suddenly takes notice that you have a dog……if he knows it’s your voice on the radio explaining how bad the place is.

    It’s why whistleblowers need anonymity; without it, they get crushed for daring to speak up.

    Is part of “reputation management” about bullying or threatening ISPs to hand over real life information about those writing negative comments, so they can be intimidated and threatened with legal action in real life?

    I’d finish by countering your assertion that “if it’s a good product or service, it will out regardless” by pointing to Linux over Windows. If Linux was a single company product, it’d never have withstood the decades of FUD thrown at it by the predecessors to “reputation management” folks. It stuck resolutely in the ring because enough people believed in it to keep it there, where gradually it spread to folks who would see it with their own eyes and judge it accordingly.

    Companies can’t afford the long haul, plenty of companies will struggle and eventually fold if they can’t meet certain turnover targets, so it’s little comfort if their product is finally recognized as a brilliant idea two years after the company have went under, the staff have all moved on and the product isn’t being made any more.

    PS: I need to get you back on Crivins at some point, this time with Mumble.

  2. Something else I thought of after I posted that comment:

    I am also curious if there’s a line a “reputation management” company wouldn’t cross. If a company insists you use your influence to do something you know to be unethical or would be seen to be unethical, do you refuse and stand your ground? Do you drop that client? Or do you do exactly as they demand? If the answer is that you’d hold firm, who would hire you? Isn’t the point of a reputation manager, to do the dodgy stuff so that you can keep your hands clean and claim “we didn’t know about that” if or when the Streisand effect kicks in.

  3. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

    I have to admit that I wonder if they have any connection with Dozier Internet Law, an American Law Firm that has done some really strange things in the nature of “Reputation Control” in the past. Among other things they’ve sued Ronald J. Riley, one of the most amazingly crazy patent advocates I’ve ever run into. It’s one of those law cases where you end up hoping that the Judge will sanction both parties…

    Wayne

  4. openbytes says:

    Hello all….. Firstly yes Gordon, I’d love to come back on the Crivins show. Secondly what strikes me about reputation management companies is that firstly people feel the need to employ them and secondly why the client bases of these firms seem to be surrounded in secrecy.

    I could send someone a free laptop with my product on and whilst bribing someone for a good review is not legal, you know full well that the reciever will write favourably in order to try and get more. I recall the Microsoft MVP who was nym shifting here in order to promote his Microsoft stance as one such example. He allegedly received a free laptop from Microsoft.

    In the real world how would you prove his actions were as a result of gifts? You can’t and no court in any land would bother trying.

    It seems to me that this free speech could be used to distort, twist and alter facts in order to promote a certain agenda.

    Just look at comp.os.linux.advocacy on Usenet. You have people there who for 15+ years have been attacking Linux and FOSS users. Are we to believe they are just “normal” people with an honest held belief?

    Could anyone reading this actually spend 15+ years being vulgar and insulting to a group of people merely because they disagreed with their viewpoints or is there something else at play here? Reputation management for example? – Whilst I do not think Reputation.com has any involvement in any actions over on Usenet, its mission statement could quite easily be applied to other companies who offer the same service and don’t have a list of ethics that Reputation.com claim to have.

    I’d like to elaborate on the ethics that Reputation.com use in their business practices, but unfortunately, as yet they have not provided them.

  5. Some industries grow into a spot that can milk both sides of the chain, reputation management is one of them. If one reputation management company has two competing client companies, both of whom want to smear the other, what happens? Will they step back to say to both “hey, that’s unethical (not counting that you don’t know your competitor is also a client and has asked for the same thing against you)”…or do they take the money from both to engineer the smears then subsequent takedowns of their own work?

    It does seem that if you’re even thinking you need a reputation management company, you’re probably on the receiving end of very accurate reviews and don’t like how it turns off potential chumps.

    I’d like to know how reputation management companies distinguish between “wrong”, “opinion” and “negative” too. It’s not the same thing, although both can put a potential customer off.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if you don’t share it or it reflects badly on you. Two opposing sides of a transaction can be perceived quite honestly but differently by either side. That’s “opinion”.

    One side or the other can intentionally modify the report of a transaction to claim falsehoods, that’s “wrong”. Either can be “negative”.

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