It has been said, “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.” (P.T. Barnum) And, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is NOT being talked about.” (Oscar Wilde) And finally, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” (Brendan Behan)
But try saying any of those to Michael Pines. As reported by Amanda Bronstad at Law.com:
Michael T. Pines made headlines by advising clients to break into their foreclosed homes. Then, after the San Diego-area attorney was arrested last February for trespassing, the State Bar of California placed his license on inactive status.
Personal injury attorney Michael Pines of the Law Offices of Michael Pines doesn’t have the middle initial “T” in his name. And he’s in San Diego, not Encinitas, Calif., where Michael T. Pines had been operating as Pines & Associates.
Internet news articles about the first Pines failed to note the distinction. “I had clients who called me and said, ‘I saw you in the news. Are you the guy that’s in jail?’ ” said the San Diego-based Pines. No, he explained; in fact, he’d never even met the guy.
And while this case of confused identity was no doubt frustrating for Michael Pines (hold the T), compared with other lawyer web reputation problems, it seems mild. When it comes to talking about lawyers online, the web is full of nastiness. Some of it undoubtedly earned, some of it false, and some of it completely fake.
Do We Reap What We Sow Online?
In many conversations I have about online reputation management, one of the most common responses I hear is, “Just provide good service and this won’t happen.” And of course, any lawyer who has been practicing for any significant amount of time recognizes that you can’t please all the people all of the time. Further, providing excellent client service won’t protect you from ex-spouses, former associates, people you unfriend, or your competition (more on this below).
The truth is, that while sometimes what we read about each other online has some validity, much of the time what is posted about us, is at best, grossly exaggerated, and at worst, lies.
And frankly, no matter how hard you try, being a lawyer, you’re going to make some enemies.
What Can Be Done?
Of course, the foundation to protecting against negative online sentiment should begin with not pissing off your clients. However, that’s really just ticket to entry stuff.
First, you should be actively monitoring and managing your online professional reputation. Google Alerts and periodically googling yourself are two free and effective methods.
Second, you have to think about how to respond to negative sentiment, if at all. In Turn Negative Online Reviews Into Positive Reactions Avvo’s (@Avvo) Josh King (@joshuamking) helps out. Here are just a few of his tips:
Don’t Overreact. “It’s tempting to want to sue everyone involved when you see negative commentary online,” King says. “But review sites – like Avvo, TripAdvisor or Yelp – are immune from defamation liability for third-party comments under federal law. And even if you sue the reviewer, you may find that your lawsuit brings far more attention to the review than it ever would have received otherwise. Plus, lawsuits are expensive, enormously distracting and uncertain.”
Don’t use fancy tricks. Thinking of trying to get consumers to sign agreements not to comment or writing your own positive reviews to counteract the negative? Don’t do it. Those techniques run the gamut from ill-advised to illegal, and can well make matters much worse for the company.
Consider the Merits of Negative Reviews. Critical feedback, while disheartening, can be a blessing in disguise. It offers a form of client feedback and research that businesses have not previously had visibility into. It is critical to view negative feedback as objectively as possible. It may expose a blind spot in a professional’s approach, problems with staff or rough edges around the office that the business was unaware of. Rather than dismissing negative reviews out of hand, businesses should first consider whether this feedback is flagging problems – a broken process; a surly employee – that the business needed to become aware of.
The Golden Opportunity to Respond. In addition to the credibility-enhancing benefit, negative reviews also provide a unique opportunity to showcase a businesses commitment to client service. How? By posting a brief response to each negative review. While some businesses are concerned that responding to a negative review raises a client-confidentiality issue, that is true only if a business wants to argue the substance of the review. And that, of course, is the worst possible thing to do. A response to a negative client review should simply reiterate that the businesses is listening, has heard the complaint, is sorry about it and would like the client to contact the business directly to address any remaining concerns. Some businesses can even use negative reviews in their marketing, to highlight that their uniqueness is not for everyone.
This is excellent advice. Way more often than not, escalating these situations through litigation harms more than it helps. Don’t respond emotionally. Take some time to understand how this happened. If you choose to respond, do it in a professional manner. That’s the best way to turn something negative into something positive.
Online Reputation Services
There is no shortage of companies that, for a fee, will try to “fix” your reputation problem. I advise you to use caution. While some online reputation management services can help you mitigate the damage done by online negative sentiment, far more won’t do much in terms of solving the problem, and some will actually make it worse.
Should you decide to hire someone to monitor and manage the online you, make sure you set very specific guidelines and objectives about what and how the company will operate on your behalf. Anything posted publicly under your name should have your review and approval. And any company with whom you work should have a firm grasp of your state’s ethics rules, as well as, public relations, and yes, even SEO (how do you think you’re going to get those negative sentiment results out of the first position for searches for your name).
Online Reputation Wars
This might shock you, but there are some reputation management firms that practice offensive reputation attacking. These firms will go out and actually post fake negative reviews of their clients’ competitors. While any lawyer that hires a company to do this on their behalf would clearly be subject to some serious Bar sanctions, it happens. And it’s not always so neat and easy to figure out who is the evil puppeteer pulling the strings. This is yet another reason why it’s so important to stay on top of what is being said about you, your firm, and your colleagues online.