How to handle a defamatory attack to your online reputation

How to handle a defamatory attack to your online reputation

This is Day 28 of our new series: 30 days to a better online reputation. Be sure to subscribe to our blog so you don’t miss a single important lesson!

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Mark Twain

There are few justifiable reasons for getting heavy-handed in social media. When you’re facing a defamatory reputation attack is one of them. It’s tough enough to protect your reputation from justified criticisms when you mess up, but it’s just plain unfair when someone attacks your good name without merit.

A reputation attack of this kind still requires a softly-softly approach, you don’t want to stir up any support for your attacker by being too heavy-handed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t release the hounds when warranted.

The non-legal legal approach

According to the blog search engine Technorati, 94% of bloggers will retract, edit, or delete incorrect information if you contact them. That’s good news, because that’s the approach you should take when being defamed online. Rather than hand this immediately to your attorney and incur the extra expense, your first contact should be a direct email or letter. The tone of the letter should be friendly but firm. Explain that the author of the defamatory content has made a mistake in their statement. Provide them with correct information and explain that the continued publication of the inaccurate comments will hurt you financially.

Your goal here is to avoid putting their backs against the wall. If you start out with a full on “cease and desist” letter, you may panic them in to doing something that could be further detrimental to your reputation—such as trying to invoke a David versus Goliath story with their audience. Instead, a casual email will suffice in letting them know that they have made a mistake, showing them how to make things right, and subtly implying that any lack of cooperation will leave you with no choice but to pass the matter to your legal counsel and pursue litigious recourse.

Delete, delete, delete

When making your request, it’s important to spell out exactly the action you wish the defaming detractor to take. If you don’t make your demands clear, then you run the risk that the author will do nothing more than post an excerpt of your email to the original article. That’s not good enough.

No one ever reads the retraction section of a newspaper. Okay, perhaps a few do, but only after they’re done with the obituaries. It’s the same with online publications—no one ever cares about the follow-up post or the footnote edit. Certainly Google doesn’t care. The negative story is what garnered all of the attention, all of the back links, and all of the social shares. The negative story is what Google will show when anyone searches for you.

What you should always request is a full deletion of the defaming statements. The article, blog post, tweet, or status update should be fully deleted. That is the only guaranteed way to avoid it showing up in Google. If they’re not willing to delete it completely, then the next best solution is for it to be completely redacted of any defamatory statements. They should change the title of the post, remove your name from the headline, and make sure that anyone reading the page quickly understands that the author made a mistake. If you can also get them to add a “noindex” tag to the HTML, then that will instruct Google not to show the page in its search results.

Taking legal action

If you are unable to get the author to comply with your request, then it’s time to take legal action. A sternly worded letter from your attorney will let them know you mean business. Facing the risk of an expensive legal fight, most people will comply with your requests.

If they don’t then it’s time to put the matter before a judge. Defamation laws are tricky to understand. You can’t sue someone for defamation just because you didn’t like the review they did of your company. A successful claim must prove that the statement was false, caused financial harm, and was made with no attempt to research the truth. If you happen to be a notable person, such as a celebrity or public official, you also have to prove malice. That’s a lot of proof needed.

Assuming you can make a solid case, you’ll win a court order, forcing the author to remove their libelous statements. If they won’t, are unable to, or you’ve sued a “John Doe” because you don’t know the true identity of the detractor, then your court order can be sent to Google, requesting that it remove the content from its index.

Defamation will be your strongest argument in any legal remedy, but that’s not your only option. If appropriate, you can make claims for copyright or trademark infringement, but again you can’t get a negative review removed just because someone used your trademark in their write up.

Kick ‘em where it hurts

Your goal is to get the inaccurate information removed from the web. While a court victory is the only guaranteed method to achieve this, it’s not the only way.

Report them to their registrar – some domain name registries have strict policies that prevent web sites from making money from defamatory attacks or from engaging in criminal activities.

Report them to their hosting company – in the same manner, check to see if the blog or news site is violating any terms and conditions of their web host provider.

Report them to their social network – while Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest et al might not care that someone is defaming you, if that detractor is using your own trademarked name as their profile name, then you might be able to gain ownership of the account by submitting evidence of your trademark.

Report them to Google – if you find that your detractor is violating Google’s guidelines about search engine optimization (SEO) spam, let the search giant know. Black hat SEO practices get web sites banned from Google’s index every day. Likewise, if you see that they are using, and abusing, Google’s AdSense ads then you can submit a complaint and have their earnings invalidated. Cutting off the income of someone defaming you is one way to get their compliance.

These four tactics are a last resort approach for removing defamation. While all are perfectly legal, some of your stakeholders might question you for taking such extreme steps. Use with caution.

Share your side of the story

Even if you have a strong case for defamation and you’re pursuing a legal resolution, it can be many months before you are victorious. In the meantime, the inaccurate statements are out there, hurting your online reputation. If that’s the case, you may decide to address the libelous statements head on.

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides, the pig likes it.

If you decide to leave a comment on the offending blog post, or share a Facebook update with your side of the story, make it succinct and to the point. Something along the lines of, “The statements made are 100% false and we have reached out to try and provide accurate information. Unfortunately the author is unwilling to remove their defamatory comments so we regretfully have no choice but to pursue this matter in the courts.” After you share your side of the story, try to avoid being drawn in any further. Going back and forth with your detractor—or their supporters—will only inflict further damage to your reputation. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides, the pig likes it.”

Watch for the echo chamber

Even once you secure a legal victory, your work is not done. You will need to be diligent to monitor for any reoccurrence of the inaccurate statements. The last thing you want is for a defamatory statement to become an urban legend that gets twisted and contorted until everyone assumes it to be true.

Likewise, you don’t want any echoes to show up in Google’s search results. If you’re unable to get your detractor’s attack removed from Google—because you couldn’t prove defamation due to the comments being true—then you’re going to have to work hard to convince Google that it shouldn’t be shown in its search results. How do you do that? You make sure that Google focuses only on the positive web content that you’ve created and on Day 29, you’ll learn how to do just that.

ByAndy Beal

Andy Beal is The Original Online Reputation Expert™. A bestselling author of two critically-acclaimed reputation management books, a keynote speaker at dozens of events, and brand consultant experience with thousands of individuals and companies.

    2 Comments for “How to handle a defamatory attack to your online reputation”
    1. Really insightful Anthony, over here at Wired Marketing Agency I always advise potential clients as you suggested to contact the webmaster and explain your side of the story and see where that goes first. The bottleneck is when the search result is a government (.gov) or some sort of official governing body/authority, ripoff report or slanderous review. Not so easy to get them to play ball then. The next best thing at that point is to get those results buried where virtually no one will ever see them. Wouldn’t you agree?

    2. My wife have been subjected to a concerted campaign of defamation and lies perpetrated by our Russian ex business partner.
      As minority shareholders in the business we were pushed out and parallel the defamation campaign, they commenced hollow legal actions against us. One has completed and decided in our favor and the other is in progress.
      During this whole ordeal, all the assets of the company that we are shareholders of, have disappeared with not a lot we can do about it.
      Ultimately it seems that all their tactics were a smokescreen to siphon off the value in the business and leave us out in the cold.
      Of course we have responded to our customer base however about half of them believe the Russian propaganda and no longer deal with us.
      Of course we have our own legal actions in process but it will take an eternity to get any justice.
      In the meantime, we are hemorrhaging financially.
      Considering that the accusations leveled against us are completely basis, please tell me what else we can do to find some justice?
      The article was very helpful and we will try and action some of the suggestions.
      Many thanks

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