Reaching out to new audiences online is an obvious path to fuel growth, but it does come with one major drawback...

Trading goods and services online can be a bit like operating in what Nicola Byrne calls “the wild west”. She is President of the Irish Exporters Association and founder of Cloud 90 which helps businesses manage their online risk.

When there is no face to face contact, people can feel emboldened to say the worst things about a brand and its company executives.

“If there were no speed limits, we’d probably all drive quite a bit faster,” Byrne says. “It’s the same with comments online. There are some very nasty people out there who get a kick out of saying the worst thing about companies and their staff. It’s easy becasuse they never actually have to say anything to anyone’s face.”


Your brand image risk


Salacious comments about an executive’s personal life or a fake review can not only be hurtful, they can sometimes be the first thing a prospective customer or new business partner might see when researching a business online.

There are processes for taking down defamatory content online but businesses often do not know what they are, Byrne explains. The first point is to ensure that you have a good reason for a comment to be taken down.

“Different platforms have different rules so the key is knowing exactly what they are,” she says.

“The key thing people have to bear in mind is that opinon is fine. If someone has something to say about the service they received from you or a product you supplied, that is their right. You may not agree with it but they have the right to an opinion.

“What someone can’t do is tackle the man rather than the ball. So if something is deeply personal and wrong, or if someone is clearly a rival pretending to have had bad service from you, that’s just not on.”


Risk mitigation starts with staff


Byrne’s primary piece of advice for companies worried about managing the risk of their reputation being questioned online is to prioritise training staff. The majority of cases, she reveals, arise from employees posting something salicious about customers or other employees which, had they taken a moment to consider their actions, they would never have pressed ‘submit’.

“We obviously deal with a lot of disgruntled former employees who want to get one over on the boss, so that does happen,” she says.

“Most of the time, though, it’s not malicious. More often than not it can be someone having a bad day and says something online about a customer and the comment gets a lot of attention. You’ve got to get staff trained to never talk about work or customers in a bad way and make them realise there can be dire consequences if they do.”


Handling harrassment


When a company is the subject of a malicious posting, it can be incredibly emotional for those involved. Often comments are aimed at someone who has set up a company and so sees it as an extension of themselves.

You may not agree with it, but they have the right to an opinion; but what they can’t do is tackle the man rather than the ball.

Hence, Byrne cautions, the first reaction most people have is to wade in to a conversation and try to set the record straight or call out a so-called customer as a rival. This can be the wost thing a company director can do.

“The first thing you need to do is the digital equivalent of stepping away from the phone,” Byrne explains.

“Your first reaction may be to get very angry and tackle the problem head on.  So, the person involved has to be taken out of the situation. We advise they don’t comment online and certainly don’t make a knee-jerk statement through a press release.

“Someone not so emotionally involved should then consider if it’s fair comment and then take it up with the platform it’s posted on. A golden rule is that if someone issues threats, it’s immediately a case for the police.”

Although there is nothing to suggest that one country has a larger problem with internet trolls than another, Byrne’s experience is that the reaction to an issue can vary. Chinese business people, for example, find losing face, even if it is online, a far bigger issue than a Western business executive. This has to be a consideration when managing online risk and growing a company overseas.