Managing your online reputation

by Valerie Thomas and L. Brent Huston -- How many news articles mentioned your company last month? Were they good news or bad? Are your confidential and proprietary documents floating around in cyberspace? Is someone using your company name to sell their product? If they were, how would you know?

Reputational risk is not new. Companies have been concerned with their reputation among consumers and investors for many years. However, the Internet has opened up a plethora of ways for people to "get the word out" about whatever they choose. Even if their claims aren't true, the damage done to company's reputation could be.

The Internet is huge. So, where do we begin?

Domain names are serious business these days. If a potential consumer mistypes your company's domain name, what happens? Are they redirected to your company's website or your competitor's? Purchasing domain names that are similar to your company name is a fairly common practice. Additionally, some companies purchase negative domains (thiscompanysucks.com) and host a FAQ page or redirect to their customer service department.

Media coverage is often a double-edged sword. While it can be excellent for reputation building, it can also destroy a reputation that took years to build. International, national, and local news articles all play a vital role in reputation management. Are you finding multiple negative articles? Combat these by drawing attention to positive actions taken by your company, such as process improvements, new versions of products or you involvement with a group of charities.

The popularity of social networking has exploded in recent years. Even dogs have MySpace pages these days, but what about you and your staff? Does your company have one? Is it maintained by someone who truly represents you and your value proposition? Are your employees giving away privileged information on these site? Are they constantly tweeting about how awful their jobs are? Having and auditing a Social Networking Policy is certainly a necessity for reputation management and it should be included any reputational risk efforts.

What about consumer feedback sites? These sites are growing in popularity and new ones are being born every day. Are these being monitored? Does anyone from customer service respond publicly to negative comments? Are they showing the world that you care about the experience of your customers? If so, then this will continue to improve your reputation. Do this wrong and you could have an issue on your hands.

What about Peer to Peer networks?

Are you keeping your company secrets secret? The amount of confidential information that can be found on the Internet is amazing. The exposure isn't always intentional. There are many ways that information can end up in the wrong hands. Search engines are the obvious way to find this type of information. However, what it commonly overlooked is exposure via Peer to Peer (P2P) software such as BearShare and others. Many times employees use these applications to grab music, video or games from the Internet, unknowingly sharing their entire hard drive or some part of it with the world at large. Work from home team members may be using the family PC for work during the day, but letting their teens fill their iPods using these tools at night, inadvertantly exposing your information and the business to high levels of risk. A comprehensive search of P2P and popular search engines is a great start to fixing this problem, allowing you to identify any leaking data and track down those responsible in most cases. At the very least, it often lets you focus your awareness and education activities to help minimize the risk.

Last, but not least, never underestimate the power of one voice. Especially when that voice uses YouTube as an amplifier. Up until a few months ago most people had never heard of Dave Carroll. The singer was traveling on United Airlines and witnessed his Taylor guitar being thrown by baggage handlers. When United Airlines refused to compensate him for his loss he produced the song "United Breaks Guitars" and posted it on YouTube. As of today, the video has had over 5 million views. If you search YouTube for United Airlines, Dave's video is the first result. What you won't find in the search results is a public response from United Airlines. What you will find is a video from Taylor guitars empathizing with Dave's situation and offering travel tips to musicians.

These are only a portion of the areas that we cover when we perform reputational risk assessments for clients, but these are good starting points for those wishing to do the basics for themselves. Good luck out there!

-- Brent Huston is CEO and Security Evangelist for Microsolved, Inc.
-- Valerie Thomas is an Information Security Analyst for MicroSolved, Inc.

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