Protecting Against Blog Fraud: What People Say Can Hurt You

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Computerworld has a post by Patrick Thibodeau on a defamation lawsuit against a former director who allegedly pretended he was a woman and disparaged the organization he used to direct, U.S. Chapter of the IT Services Management forum. The fictional person claimed there were improprieties in a board election, which it turns out to be true.


An internal investigation, key word "internal," determined the voter fraud was not big enough to change the election outcome, though it does beg the question: How the heck can they conclude this unless they ask almost every voter? But there is a real and growing problem with being able to trust what is on the Web.


I've run into several situations in which people who post negative comments on sites I support turned out not be who they claimed to be and likely were, based on their comments, working for a company that competed with the one I was talking about.


This didn't start with the Web either. A few years ago, I got a call from an IT manager who, after yelling at me, finally admitted he worked for a company I had called out in an article as having poor reliability. Then he sheepishly admitted the reliability problems.


The Disaster to Come


I know some companies have little or no sense of humor about this kind of behavior from competitors or ex-employees. Were someone caught doing this to Oracle, I'd expect to see them broke and homeless in a couple of months. Cisco had a wake-up call: One of its legal professionals was blogging under a fake name and while, as far as I could tell, he was writing his own opinion -- hell, most of the time I agreed with him -- it resulted in some public and embarrassing litigation against the company.


CEOs who blogged under fake names have been caught, with implications from the Securities and Exchange Commission. And creative PR firms that are commenting and possibly blogging without disclosing their affiliations could move a company's stock and their agency relationship with their client, creating an SEC investigative nightmare.


Some disgruntled employees blog about their own companies' products or management, but likely competitors' employees do the same thing, and people can't tell the difference. This suggests a rule to protect the company be enacted and enforced.


Suggest Anonymity Be Outlawed


Cisco's new rule requires employees to properly identify themselves when blogging about things having to do with Cisco. It's a good example of policy to protect the company. Because it is so hard to catch someone doing this -- though it's getting easier all the time -- and because of the potential for litigation and/or SEC punitive actions, a person violating this policy probably should be fired. This may seem draconian, but look at the benefits after an event.


If such a policy exists and you showcase it and the firing, should litigation result, you should be able to better protect the corporation and isolate the offending employee by arguing he or she clearly was not operating with corporate sanction. Without the policy, sanction could be implied by the lack of anything to prevent it.


So I think it is well past time we made sure corporations are protected against the poorly-thought-out actions of employees, executives, and agents before one goes too far -- which they likely will, regardless. Then you are left trying to fashion a defense against an aggressive, and probably really upset, competitor or regulatory agency with little or nothing on which to base that defense.


By the way, this also suggests you look into folks bad-mouthing your company to determine whether they are disgruntled employees (ex or otherwise) or competitors. These folks can do a lot of damage to your brand and your sales volume. Setting an example of one or two of them probably will reduce your exposure a great deal.


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Good Luck!