Defamatory accusations online or in the media can wreck reputations of both individuals and organizations. Such allegations, often repeated in the media and online, are far worse than complaints of mediocre products or customer services shortfalls. They can destroy people’s lives and send businesses into bankruptcy, especially small and mid-sized businesses that have limited resources to fight false or derogatory accusations.

Many different types of sources can spread defamatory accusations. Reputation management firms warn clients about what they call the X-files: ex-employees, ex-spouses, ex-clients and ex-partners with grudges. Their accusations could be considered defamation that warrants legal action. Purveyors of fake news, motivated by a variety of reasons, make up stories that mention brands, publish the articles on their websites, and promote the posts through social media.

Seek Alternatives to Litigation

The false statements may be inflammatory and spiteful, but legal and public relations experts recommend calm and careful deliberation before filing a lawsuit. Defamation is a false statement of fact made in public that damages your reputation. Even if it’s insulting, an opinion is not defamation. Defamation that is written or published is libel. Spoken defamation is slander.

“If the crux of the statement is not a provable fact, however mean the statement is, it is not defamatory,” explains Forbes contributor Art Neill, executive director of New Media Rights, a nonprofit that provides legal services to entrepreneurs.

A lawsuit should be the last resort. Litigation is costly, emotionally draining and uncertain. It can also prompt counter suits. Better to take other actions first. Simply asking for the offending statement to be removed is often effective. Many bloggers and website managers remove incorrect and offensive statements upon request. A more formal cease and desist letter often prompts reluctant website owners to quickly remove posts. While some choose to fight, most don’t want to spend thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit, says defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony.

Taking no action at all is sometimes the best course of action, if the scope of the false statement is small and the website lacks reach. Responding would only amplify it, he adds. Refuting the attacks with facts and your side of the issue must be done carefully. “A refutation done improperly could lead to “flame wars” or could even raise the search engine rankings of the defamatory page,” Zvulony says.

Respond Swiftly

If action is appropriate, quick action is crucial to remove defamatory statements before they spread online and destroy the company’s or individual’s reputation.

“With defamation on the internet, the defamatory postings can spread quickly and can persist for many years and potentially for a person’s life. Believing that the posting will simply ‘go away’ or be forgotten is often unrealistic,” Zvulony says. Once defamatory postings spread, it becomes far more time-consuming and costly to contact multiple webmasters and negotiate their agreement to remove the posting.

media monitoring service with automated email alerts can notify you when your company, product names, company executives and other keywords are mentioned online, enabling your organization to react almost immediately. It’s essential to work with a media monitoring service that monitors traditional media, social media and other online sources and reports results in an integrated dashboard.

Beware Advertised Quick Fixes

Desperate victims of social media attacks sometimes succumb to the reputation management consultants who promise quick fixes to tarnished reputations — guaranteed.

Public relations experts, legitimate reputation management experts, and established social media monitoring services like say beware. They compare firms promising quick reputation fixes to snake oil salesmen selling concoctions guaranteed to cure whatever ails you. Of the many myths circulating in the online reputation management field, the claim that reputations can be repaired quickly is the most common.

Developing a solid reputation takes time. A proactive, long-term PR plan with ongoing media monitoring and measurement is the most reliable path to a good reputation.

Consider Public Responses Carefully

When an enemy makes slanderous attacks in the media, the normal inclination is to fight fire with fire and counter-attack in the media. However, attacking an accuser in the media may only add fuel to the unfavorable story, says Forbes contributor Cheryl Connor, founder of SnappConnor PR.

Standard journalism practice calls for reporters to ask the accused for their response. By criticizing opponents, you may provide them another media opportunity. The story may degenerate into an ongoing feud that the media will be happy to publicize.

If a public response is warranted, obtain PR advice and legal counsel before issuing a statement. Every statement to the media has the potential to increase legal difficulties. A typical initial action: Post a carefully worded and thoroughly reviewed statement on social media and your website and simultaneously release the post to the media. Use the statement to correct misinformation, not to attack the adversary.

Promote Favorable Content

Sometimes, reputation management services advise to produce other content that will push the negative content down in the rankings. That strategy sometimes helps, but only if the new content is legitimate news or well-placed opinion. Experts recommend: Don’t flood the internet with phony news releases, accolades, awards or customer reviews. Viewers may flag the content as fraudulent, and competitors and media outlets may notice.

“A savvy consumer can smell a rotten egg very quickly; a savvy journalist can use that rotten egg to whip up a nasty omelet of negativity,” cautions entrepreneur Kevin Harrington in Forbes.

A major donation to a well-known non-profit or a major new product or program can often overtake the online popularity of an article containing false accusations and push it into obscurity. It will, however, still be accessible on the internet.

Preparation is Crucial

Adequate preparation and documentation can quickly silence slanderous attacks. Register your organization’s trademarks immediately, Connor advises. Include news of those trademark registrations in press releases that announce new products and services and place them on your website where they can be easily found.

Meticulously document compliance to rules and regulations, and consider including owner/operator insurance in the company’s liability insurance. Employee contracts should prohibit breach of confidentiality or disparagement and detail how employee complaints will be handled.

Prepare a PR crisis plan that names a crisis response team and an assigned spokesperson and outlines protocols for communicating with the media, public and internal audiences.

The organization may ultimately benefit from a public accusation. The attacker’s maliciousness and lack of credibility may become apparent and the public and the media may respect your organization for taking the high road. Your company’s thoughtful response may prove to be a public relations windfall.

Bottom Line: Defamatory attacks pose a dangerous threat to individuals and all types of organizations, including small businesses that are most vulnerable. Almost anybody can take advantage of the internet and social media to spread false accusations. In most cases, swift action is essential to stop the false claims from spreading and causing more damage.

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This article was first published on May 18, 2018, and updated on Oct. 16, 2020.