As the last 12 months have shown us-what with BP's environmental disaster and a variety of online scandals-the damage that a disgruntled client or audience can do can't be measured in income alone but can easily swell to ridiculous proportions.
Don't fret; there is action you can take. While BP's strategy of bidding on its own name for online ads triggered a new wave of controversy, small online businesses can protect their names in hundreds of ways without fearing backlash.
The8 steps we'll talk about here aren't the only ways to protect your reputation online, but they can form a fantastic foundation for PR.
1. Own Your Name, and Register All Variations
Cyber-squatters spend their entire lives hoarding domain names that should belong to other people.
They dig through popular YouTube videos to find upcoming pop stars, sift through newspapers to capitalize on current events and buy up hundreds of domain names daily to cash in when a few of them generate demand.
Protect yourself from their greed by owning all major variations of your domain name, including the standard top-level domains (.com, .net and .org) and the exotic ones (like .me). Store a small single-page website on each domain to ensure that it's indexed, spidered and highly ranked.
2. Control First-Page Results With 2.0 Websites and Social Networks
Never underestimate the damage that a Facebook, MySpace or Friendster page can do to your business.
From rejected job applications to endless personal grievances, there are thousands of very public cases in which a social media profile has caused grief for a company. Protect your social media pages from being highjacked.
Start by registering your name on popular services, even if you don't plan to use them. That should be enough to put off most vultures and disgruntled ex-clients. Should a public dispute arise, having control over search results through your social media profiles will help you push unwanted attacks out of sight.
3. Prepare a Crisis Strategy in Case You Draw Controversy
Even the US Air Force has an official social media response protocol. Do you? The marketing value of social media is disputed-with good reason: social media blunders can destroy a business.
Few things can reign in a controversy online. You'll have to decide whether to try to stop, ignore or manage the controversy in your attempt to bounce back.
With a crisis strategy prepared, you can take charge when things go wrong. Using traditional PR materials, prepare a strategy so that you are in a position to judge how to respond to social media criticism.
4. Decide What's Important, and Reach Out to Influencers
Some complaints are inconsequential; they come from people with ample time, limited experience and a thirst for drama. It's the reality of doing business online; some people out there will, for no reason, attempt to ruin your business over trivialities.
Learn when and how to respond to these boors. If the idea of responding to outright trollish criticism doesn't appeal to you, then let it die naturally.
If things swell out of proportion, then reach out for help-preferably to someone who has a reasonable amount of influence online.
5. Let It Slide Sometimes
Everyone makes mistakes, especially in business. If you missed a deadline, messed up a project or severed ties with a client and are now dealing with the aftermath in public, try to look at the situation from a stranger's perspective.
These things can seem more important than they are, especially when you think your reputation is at stake.
Take scale into account; your problems will very likely fade uneventfully. Forget your worries and reach out to anyone who has been affected. Offering to mend fences is often the best way to preempt further complaints.
6. Develop a Procedure for Dealing With Frustrating Clients and Problematic Projects
Business writer Tim Ferriss says that ignoring frustrating clients is better than altering your routine. Others recommend billing them at a higher rate to make up for the trouble they cause.
Every freelancer has had to deal with a client who didn't mesh with their method or schedule. The experience is never nice.
Set up a fairly strict procedure for dealing with problematic clients, rather than letting them go or charging them more. Certain clients will never be happy with what you deliver, regardless of its merit. Limit their ability to impede your business by implementing a set strategy of your own devising.
7. Have an Outlet Ready
Some criticism is difficult or impossible to ignore. Don't post a comment on their blog or reach out to them by email; rather, craft a reply on your turf, whether it's your blog, YouTube channel or something else. The most common option is a blog post.
Here's why using your own blog makes sense: when you respond on someone else's website, they control how your message is viewed. They can hide it, edit it or parade it around the blogosphere to increase their visibility.
Store any content that you create to clear the air on your own website, both for security and PR reasons.
8. Exercise Caution
Responding to criticism isn't easy. BP's advertising blunder cost it the support of online communities. Tucker Max's post-movie explanations cost him more fans than they saved.
With online coverage swinging so easily either way, making your response to criticism clear, simple and fact-based is important.
The goal isn't to win over people who don't like you-there will always be negative people online, and they'll troll you for no apparent reason. The goal is to assure your target audience that things are okay. Look for signs of discontent, and deal with them clearly and directly.
Written exclusively for WDD by Mathew Carpenter. He is an 18-year-old business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @sofamoolah.
How do you protect your reputation online? If you encountered these situations before, how did you handle them? Please let us know below...