Ethical online reputation management is important. Ethical reputation marketing requires transparency, honesty, and respect for privacy in managing the online reputations of people and brands. Using legitimate methods like promoting factual content, correcting inaccuracies, and addressing issues openly, businesses can build a positive and credible online presence. We caution against unethical practices such as posting fake reviews, greenwashing, hacking, or outright lying, which can cause long-term harm to a brand's reputation.
Right vs. wrong
What constitutes right and wrong behavior for online reputation management and public relations companies? It's similar to how ethics in the media are treated. There is a lot of confusion. We hope this article will help outline what really is or is not ethical in the online reputation management industry.
Online reputation management (ORM) is an important aspect of marketing today. It involves influencing, controlling, or enhancing a business, individual's, or group's online reputation through various tactics. While ORM can have a positive impact when conducted ethically and transparently, there are several ethical gray areas that may raise concerns. Some of these ethical dilemmas include mug shot removal, astroturfing, using sock puppets, censoring complaints, manipulating reviews, and using search engine optimization tactics to manipulate results.
Creating fake reviews is a bad idea
Does your company have bad Glassdoor reviews? Why not just login and write some fake ones to boost your rating? While it's fairly easy to write fake reviews, is it ethical? Many companies that claim to improve Yelp reviews are really just writing fake reviews. Is that unethical? We think so.
Of course, if a review platform like Yelp or TripAdvisor is found to have a high number of fake reviews, their credibility may be damaged. But the real damage is steering people who rely on reviews to make decisions in the wrong direction.
Are fake reviews even legal?
No. Fake reviews are not legal.
The United States FTC considers an owner to have engaged in deceptive marketing. False online reviews fall under FTC "endorsement guidelines" that state "reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading"
[The guidelines] "reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading"
For more information on how the FTC treats fake reviews, paid endorsements, and influencer marketing, check out this link.
Ethics of mugshot removal
Mugshot removal is a controversial practice in ORM, where companies offer to remove individuals' mug shots from online databases and search results for a fee. This service has been criticized for exploiting people's vulnerability, as these images can have a detrimental impact on their reputation, job prospects, and personal relationships. Although some argue that it provides a valuable service for those who have served their time or had their charges dropped, others view it as extortion and argue that it undermines the public's right to access information.
Laws pertaining to mugshot websites vary by jurisdiction, with some states in the US implementing legislation to regulate these platforms and the way mugshots are posted online by law enforcement agencies. These laws often require mugshot websites to remove images upon request, free of charge, for individuals whose charges were dismissed, acquitted, or expunged. However, the ethics of charging a fee for mugshot removal remains a contentious issue. Critics argue that it exploits vulnerable individuals and hinders their chances of rehabilitation, while proponents claim it's a valuable service for those seeking to protect their reputations. Balancing public access to information and protecting individual rights remains a significant challenge in this area.
Astroturfing is another contentious aspect of ORM. It involves the creation of fake online identities or profiles to generate positive reviews or endorsements for a person or organization. Astroturfing can be best thought of as a fake grassroots movement. By using astroturfing, companies can create the illusion of widespread support or satisfaction, swaying public opinion in their favor. Astroturfing can be highly deceptive, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between genuine and manipulated feedback. This practice has led to increasing skepticism toward online reviews and can ultimately erode trust in the digital marketplace.
Censoring complaints is another ethically ambiguous area in ORM. In some cases, reputation management firms may attempt to suppress negative reviews, customer complaints, or unfavorable news articles by pressuring websites or authors to remove the content. Some reputation management companies employ attorneys that specialize in the practice. While companies have the right to protect their reputation, this practice raises questions about free speech and the public's right to know about potential issues with a product or service. When complaints are censored, consumers may not have access to essential information to make informed decisions, which can lead to a false perception of a company's reputation.
But on the other hand, companies often say they are adding balance to the record. A Zendesk study showed that 95% of people are likely to share a bad experience, while only 87% of people are likely to share a good one.
Using alternative facts (lies)
Some reputation management companies will outright lie about their clients. At Reputation X, or euphemism for this is "alternative facts." For example, they'll create and publish online content about charities they never gave to, awards never won, or refute negative product safety claims using false information.
Black hat SEO tactics
Search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are often used in ORM to influence search engine results. While ethical SEO practices involve improving a website's visibility through relevant and valuable content or outreach and social media for link building, some ORM firms employ questionable techniques to manipulate rankings.
These tactics, often referred to as "black hat SEO," may include the use of privately controlled blog networks, the development of low-quality or duplicate content, and using services to manipulate the number of clicks to a given web page.
When used for reputation management purposes, these practices can push down negative search results, making them less visible to the public. Although it is important to point out that search engines have gotten much better at weeding these types of manipulation out of search results because they can create a misleading impression that undermines the integrity of search engine results.
Straw man techniques
One definition of a "straw man" is a fake person created online. Strawmen are sometimes confused with "sock puppets" (see below).
When a real person writes under the name of another made-up person, it is called a pseudonym. Benjamin Franklin was well known for penning opinion pieces under another name. Franklin would often create an entire persona for the "writer", which could be male or female. That false personality is sometimes called a straw man.
An example of a straw man as used in online marketing would be the creation of social media accounts, websites, and other online content meant to be used as an online footprint. Is this ethical? It depends.
If a straw man is created to simply shield the identity of an entity, and it is not used for nefarious purposes, then it's probably ethical to do so. For example, if an entity wanted to pose an unpopular point of view but be shielded from the backlash of social media. But if a straw man is used to spread false information or to manipulate opinion in a malicious way, it's probably unethical.
There are several ethical gray areas in online reputation management that have raised concerns about transparency, trust, and the public's right to access information. Practices such as mug shot removal, astroturfing, censoring complaints, and using manipulative search engine optimization tactics can create a false perception of a person's or organization's reputation. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, it is essential for ORM firms to prioritize ethical and transparent practices to maintain public trust and uphold the principles of free speech and open access to information.
Ethical reputation management FAQs
Is reputation management ethical?
When a reputation firm engages in unethical behavior, they are hurting not only its client but the people who rely on the information they distribute. Our job is often to reverse that.
Are fake reviews even legal?
No. Fake reviews are not legal. False online reviews fall under FTC endorsement guidelines that state to reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading.
What are sock puppets?
Sock puppets in online marketing are people that were paid to promote something. When a person or group of people are paid to write positive reviews or online content, they are sock puppets. Wikipedia is full of sock puppets.
What SEO techniques are unethical?
Low-quality content. Content that misrepresents facts. Techniques that take over a person's web browser in some fashion without permission. Methods that show one version of content to search engines and another to people. Content filled with inaccurate keywords meant to game search engines.
About the author
Kent Campbell is the chief strategist for Reputation X, an award-winning reputation management agency based in California. Kent has over 15 years of experience with SEO reputation management, Wikipedia editing, review management, and strategy. Kent has helped celebrities, leaders, executives, and marketing professionals improve the way they are seen online. Kent writes about reputation, SEO, Wikipedia, and PR-related topics, and is an expert witness for reputation-related legal matters. You can find Kent's biography here.