Unvarnished and Dangerous

Defending a company's reputation has just gotten harder -- a lot harder. A new and highly controversial social media site, getunvarnished.com, just arrived. On this site, anyone can anonymously post reviews of anyone else with no accountability and no restraints. People can now review and rate their bosses, colleagues, CEOs, clients and companies knowing that the comments are forever searchable. Any ex-employee can go undercover to besmirch a company's reputation by falsely giving it a negative rating for safety conditions, poorly designed products or sexual harassment. Rumors, innuendo and hearsay about a company or its workers are deemed fair game, whether even a scrap of truth lies beneath the surface or not.

The rising influence of social media, especially sites like Unvarnished, allow one-off antagonists to target companies with barely a flicker of warning. Although traditional corporate responses to criticism -- press releases and official statements -- still have their place, entirely new ones are needed to counter these drive-by attacks. These new tools must take into account the speed with which social media snipers can now attack and the new ways in which public opinion can be influenced.

The ways in which a few companies are now attempting to defend against these reputation snipers are instructive.

Being proactive and responding at high speed is a must. Starbucks aggressively took steps to discredit online rumors. Faced with allegations that the coffee brewer did not support our military troops, Starbucks debunked this myth on its own site by setting forth the exact number of pounds of coffee it gave to the USO to distribute to officers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait in 2009. In its recent update, Starbucks then went a step further by making use of "force multipliers." Starbucks referred to the opinions of independent third parties such as snopes.com, hoaxbusters.org, defenselink.mil, truthorfiction.com and boycottwatch.org. to confirm the "blatant untruth[fulness]" of the allegation.

Getting credentials by referring to third parties, such as Starbucks did, has great utility beyond merely countering the falsity of a specific attack. Having a warehouse of awards and recognitions that are clearly accessible online can quickly afford a company the benefit of the doubt when faced with a reputation sniper attack. Increasingly more companies are competing for these best-of-class honors that help to refute claims that your company is a bad place to work, hell for working women or not green enough. In fact, several credential givers such as Ethisphere's World's Most Ethical Companies and DiversityInc's Top 50 recently commented on the increase in applications received over the past 12 months.

The controversial appearance of a site like Unvarnished.com is a wake up call to companies of what's to come. Responding at high speed and using force multipliers are just a few of the tools available. The new social media terrain is no less than a new battlefield where reputations snipers, using in effect the techniques of guerrilla militia, fight to undermine a company's good name. There is no time to waste.