The Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management
Editor: Jonathan Bernstein
"For Those Who Are Crisis Managers,
Whether They Want to be or Not"
© 2010 Jonathan Bernstein
|Volume XI, Number 08||April 30, 2010|
JUST A THOUGHT
Crisis-related media interviews are like two people
dancing, both thinking they're leading.
FROM THE EDITORJust say "The RipOff Report" in a room filled with PR pros and consumer product company executives and you'll view a simultaneous group wince.
I've never heard anyone praise it -- indeed, quite the opposite. At the same time, putting on my hat as a former journalist and still part-time editor -- I had to admit that I really hadn't heard the other side of the story. I did some online searching, but didn't find myself satisfied with the coverage.
So I went to the source, ED (sic) Magedson, founder and editor of The RipOff Report. His answers may surprise you -- and as you'll see in my editorial comments within the article, I'd like to hear what you think about Magedson's responses.
When he sent his answers, Magedson also added this comment:
"After looking over your site and asking several people to check into what you do, I find it refreshing to hear from someone like you in your business. Unfortunately there are many companies out there in similar businesses that are giving a bad name to your industry as a whole, some of the same people trying to give Rip-off Report a bad name too. You know, because of Rip-off Report there are hundreds of companies that have popped up with these claims of Removal services of Rip-off Report. A few of them (you many know who they are) operate under dozens if not hundreds of names claiming to remove Rip-off Reports. I cannot tell you how many businesses have contacted us when they were first mad at us and then contacting us after they hired these companies as they are now fuming about getting ripped off by these reputation repair/ management companies."
The length of the interview significantly exceeded the normal amount of copy I publish in this ezine, but I considered the subject matter worthy of the length.
Next, it's almost time for the 7th Annual Labor Relations Conference hosted by Steptoe & Johnson in mid-May, and it will include a crisis management-related presentation by your editor. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of my new Keeping the Wolves at Bay - Media Training.
Want to learn more about crisis management? Please check out the Bernstein Crisis Management blog I manage with my son Erik, as well as the Crisis Management blog I host over at Carter McNamara's Free Management Library, where you'll also find a dozen or more other excellent blogs.
As always, if you like what you see, please share it with others by using the "Forward Email" link at the bottom of the ezine and tell them to subscribe! IMPORTANT NOTE: If you just "Forward" using your own email program's "Forward" function and your recipient thinks they're being spammed, they can click on the Opt Out link and opt YOU off the list. So use the "Forward Email" link, please.
My best to all,
INSIDE THE RIPOFF REPORT
By Jonathan Bernstein
|Not everyone knows who ED Magedson is, but there aren't too many consumer-focused businesses that haven't heard of the RipOff Report (ROR), the consumer complaint site founded and directed by Magedson.|
The common belief is that shortly after a complaint about any company appears on the site, it can be found prominently ranked on a Google search for that company's name. No one, of course, wants complaints showing up on page 1 of a Google search.
There are a number of common beliefs about ROR amongst PR practitioners (self included), and I wanted to hear the other side of the story. So I asked some very candid questions of Magedson and he provided some very cogent replies. I don't always agree with him, but I can't fault his willingness to openly discuss sensitive topics.
I may offer some editorial comment in the remainder of this article but, more importantly, I'd like to hear from readers. Do you believe what Magedson is saying? If not, why? If you have some fact-based rebuttals, I'd like to publish them (with full credit to you and a link back to your site).
Here are my questions for, and the uncensored answers received, from ED Magedson of RipOff Report.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1. Complaints on ROR almost always rank highly on Google search results for the name of the company being criticized. SEO experts tell me that if a company responds to a complaint at your site, it only enhances the SEO value of the complaint. Do you know or believe that this is true?
First of all, people love to speculate about responses (which we call "rebuttals") making reports appear higher in Google than would otherwise be the case. To date, I have never seen any of the "evidence" these people are relying on to reach that conclusion, so no, I don't believe this is true. However, there seems to be a pretty obvious way to "myth bust" this claim - take a look at Ripoff Report and find a NEW report; something that is at least a few days old and doesn't have any rebuttals to it yet. You can easily do this by visiting the main page of www.RipoffReport.com and looking through the scrolling list of "Newest Ripoff Reports".
Once you find a new report, go back to Google and search for that company's name. In most cases, assuming Google has indexed the site since that report was posted, you're likely to see the report somewhere on the first page even though the report has no responses to it. While you are free to draw your own conclusions from this, I think it's pretty clear that anyone who tells you that it's better not to respond to a complaint either has no idea what they're talking about, or they are trying to sell you something (like SEO services).
However, even if a rebuttal made a report ranker higher on Google, people seem to forget that this can be a HUGE benefit to them. Why? Because there's no such thing as bad press. [Bernstein Comment: If you saw some of the complaints posted on RipOff Report, you would not agree with this conclusion.] If a company has a report on our site, they can use that as a free advertisement that is worth its weight in gold. How? By responding to the complaint in a calm, fair, and reasonable manner, even if they don't agree with what was said. Here's a perfect example by a company called Overnight Mattress. [Bernstein Comment: I don't think the rebuttal balanced out the vehemence of the complaint.]
As you can see, the company used the complaint as an opportunity to explain that it was listening to its customers and changing the return policy that generated the complaint. I think anyone who reads this rebuttal would feel comfortable doing business with a company that shows that level of concern for customer service (and by the way - Ripoff Report has no relationship of any kind with this company and we haven't been paid a dime for mentioning them and no one from Rip-off Report has ever corresponded in any way with them). Even if a company wasn't willing to go that far, you could get creative and say something in a rebuttal such as: "Anyone who prints out this report from Ripoff Report and brings it in to our store will receive 10% off their next purchase." Unless you really don't care about customer service, why would you ignore a chance like this to get customers into your business?
My point is this -- companies can spend thousands of dollars on advertising trying to reach consumers, but we allow them to do that for free. Sure, you may not like having a complaint on page 1 of Google, but it's such a huge mistake to ignore that opportunity to show your customers that you do care and that they can trust you. Rebuttals are a great way to do this, and they don't cost a dime.
Consumers love to do business with a company that can show they resolve complaints and handle them in a way that will make consumers feel confident when doing business with them.
[Bernstein Comment: This is an interesting take on making lemon out of lemonade. I would love to know if any of my readers have had success doing this vis a vis a RipOff Report complaint.]
2. If an organization can provide you with solid proof that a complaint has no basis in fact and is damaging their business because it shows up on SEO results, will you remove the complaint? If not, please explain. If so, what is the best way for a company to approach you with their proof?
I get asked this a lot by people who don't run websites and who don't seem to stop and consider the reality of the Internet. In short, we don't remove reports based on "proof" from the company reported because we have no way of determining how reliable that proof is. Furthermore, the task of screening this material would be simply impossible especially for a website that charges $0 to post reports and $0 to respond to rebuttals.
Likewise, what do you think would be acceptable "proof"? Say you get an email from someone in Nigeria informing you that you just won $10 million in the Nigerian lottery. Can you expect to get a loan by taking that email to your bank as "proof" that you're suddenly rich? When people send us emails saying they can "prove" that a report is false, we have absolutely no way of knowing who we're dealing with and whether they are telling us the truth. For that reason, we justifiably refuse to act as the judge in disputes between authors and companies. Instead we let our readers make that determination for themselves. After all, if a company really has "solid proof" that a report is false, why not just post that proof as a rebuttal? Wouldn't that completely resolve the matter?
One of the most frustrating situations is when a company asks us to remove a report because they claim that the original author has admitted their report is false. We have seen this many, many times, and companies who approach us with this type of information are absolutely shocked when we tell them sorry, but we cannot remove the report even when the original author tells us they lied (the first time, not the second time). The author is welcome to come update their report and explain why they lied. More than likely it's not that they lied, it's because the reported business is threatening to sue them.
Why isn't that enough? The best way to understand this is with some examples - both Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky denied having any inappropriate relationship, and Clinton even did so under oath. That doesn't mean they were telling the truth. General Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that it intended to use them against us. We know now that he wasn't telling the truth.
Unfortunately, some people are dishonest in this world and Ripoff Report simply won't take sides and judge who is telling the truth and who isn't. That's why we allow both parties to tell their own uncensored side of the story. Again, if someone has what they believe is overwhelming proof that a report is untrue, all they have to do is post that in a rebuttal and let the readers decide what to believe.
Many times I explain the following to make my point on this subject. Something that I feel very strongly about and always felt is very disturbing. Think about all those people who were sentenced to death row and the dozens of others who have sat on death row for more than 15 or 20 years, to only find out later they were not guilty after all! And this is after one or two jury trials, countless appeals, all kinds of witnesses and evidence... to only find out later, gee whiz, they're not guilty after all. How can Rip-off Report determine if a Report is true or false?
3. There are individuals who use the anonymity of ROR and similar complaint sites to vindictively cause harm (e.g., disgruntled former employees, nasty competitors). Do you have any process for screening those out at least some of the time?
Again, I have heard this type of claim many times in the past, but I have never seen the evidence that supports it. [Bernstein Comment: And, apparently, even if he did see the evidence he wouldn't assume it was accurate, so it's a moot point.] On the contrary, after more than 12 years running the Ripoff Report, I have seen MANY companies claim that a report was posted by a competitor or an angry employee, and probably more than 9 times out of 10, the company is ultimately proven to be completely wrong. I am not saying that this never occurs, just that it happens far, far less frequently than people claim.
So how do we screen out that other 1%? We can't. The Ripoff Report has more than 500,000+ unique reports and millions upon millions of rebuttals, with about 1,000 new submissions each day. Just like postings on FaceBook, screening these for accuracy is literally impossible which is why the law does not require us (or any other site that allows comments from users) to fact-check everything that's posted.
Honestly, the most practical remedy for this situation is for readers to not take everything they see online literally, and I do not think most people do. When you read about a product on Amazon.com and see lots of positive reviews and a few negative ones, do you base your entire buying decision solely on those reviews? Of course not. I have always said, The Internet is a means of communication, not a source of truth. I think people who read the Ripoff Report understand this, and when they see one or two negative reports about a company, I think they understand and appreciate that this information should not be the deciding factor in their buying decision. It's just one piece of information that should be given as much or as little weight as the reader feels is appropriate.
Here is a paragraph that has been on our home page www.ripoffreport.com from day one:
DOING BUSINESS WITH THE COMPANY OR INDIVIDUAL REPORTED
Consumers, just because a company or individual is reported on Rip-off Report does not necessarily mean you should not do business with them. In many cases, it's just the opposite. Just because a company is posted on Rip-off Report does not mean they are "bad". At some point in time, everyone has felt like they've been ripped off, when that may not have been the case. Not everything published on the Internet, or local newspapers, or local TV news is always true. Many stories, no matter where you see them, may have a bias slant. Being short on space or only having less than 2 minutes to do a story where important facts are left out can change the entire story. Rip-off Report feels consumers reading the unedited experiences of other consumers, without editorial involvement, are getting the best consumer opinion/news available. Our detractors would like to tell you differently. Savvy consumers need to take in all the information they can find and use it as an advantage. Consumers who investigate and obtain information about a company from a number of sources will be able to make more educated decisions, because they know what to watch for. By reading Rip-off Report, or any other publication containing information about businesses, you, the consumer, now know more about that business than its competitors. More than likely the competitor has the same issues. Let the reported business know you've read complaints about them, that you would like to do business with them, and get affirmation from the company that if you do business with them, they will do right by you. Let them know that if they treat you right, you will log on to Rip-off Report and tell the world what a great experience you've had. All companies make mistakes. It is the ones that learn from their mistakes that will benefit the consumers the most. "An educated consumer is our best reader"
4. I plan to remove a complaint of my own on ROR as soon as the computer hardware company in question sends me the refund I'm due, which they said they're doing. But what if I neglected to remove my complaint as an oversight? If a complaint is legitimate but is subsequently resolved, will you remove it if the company provides proof of resolution, even if the person complaining neglects to remove it?
Our policy on this is really clear - we do not allow users to remove their own complaint, PERIOD. This is clearly explained in our Terms of Service and it is clearly explained again every time a user tries to post something.
There are lots of reasons for this policy decision. First, we think that allowing authors to remove their own reports would give companies an incentive to threaten honest consumers with an expensive lawsuit in an attempt to get a report removed simply by duress. Because we don't allow this, that incentive is removed. We also do not want users to be able to post a false report and then demand money from the company in order to remove it. Again, since we don't allow users to remove their reports, this scheme isn't possible.
The bottom line is that if a complaint is resolved satisfactorily, we're thrilled to hear about it and we encourage the author to post an update explaining that. Authors are also free to post a retraction if they want. But as far as removing the report entirely, that's just not something we believe is appropriate and it's a policy we have always had and always will have. If you don't agree with the policy, there are lots of other sites you can use.
5. The company rebuttal "area" on complaints is a good 3 1/2 to 4 inches below the complaint area, so the organization being complained about is always in a defensive position, even if it's in the right. How, then, does the rebuttal "actually help improve your credibility and reputation" as stated on your home page? It seems as if the best a company can do is reduce damage, not avoid it.
No matter where we place rebuttals, it's never good enough to satisfy everyone. If rebuttals were 1 inch below the original report, people would complain that they're not closer up. Again, I think that a consumer who is actually looking for information is smart enough to scroll down and see that the company has responded, and don't forget - the very top of the page is updated to reflect that a response has been posted.
As I already said, smart businesspeople see complaints as an opportunity to shine, not a burden to run and hide from.
6. Why is it not a conflict of interest for you to provide a forum for complaints on the one hand, and the offer the targeted organizations the option of paying for your "Reputation Management" program on the other? That seems analogous to inviting people to post negative comments about a company on the sidewalk outside of the company and then offering to repave the sidewalk.
The goal of the Ripoff Report is to help educate consumers and to help protect them from bad business practices. Our Corporate Advocacy Program does exactly that, so there's nothing about the program that conflicts with our purpose and I certainly don't agree that the site invites people to post negative comments simply so that we can help resolve them. Frankly, that argument doesn't even make any sense because we don't "invite" people to post negative comments; they do that entirely on their own. IF Ripoff Report was not available, consumers would be posting their grievances elsewhere, and they do, they are just more upset with Ripoff Report than other sites because of Ripoff Report's popularity.
When a company joins our Corporate Advocacy Program, the company must agree to work with us to contact everyone who has posted a complaint and then make things right with that person. Once we have that commitment, we follow through with it by personally reaching out to everyone who posted a complaint to let them know that the company wants to work with the customer to make them happy. Again, we do this FIRST, and we do it every time someone joins the program.
Consumers know that when a company joins our program, they can trust doing business with that company because they have made a commitment to 100% customer satisfaction. This is why many companies approach us and ask to join the program - they know that this is a very effective way to demonstrate that they care about resolving complaints. It's almost like giving every customer an extended warranty guaranteeing their satisfaction (which can be especially valuable when the company is selling an intangible service).
In any event, what many critics of the program fail to understand are three crucial points. First, imagine what it would be like if we did not offer the Corporate Advocacy Program? Would that be better? Companies with negative reports would be left to their own devices to deal with complaints on their own, and consumers would have no way to know which companies were committed to addressing and resolving disputes and which ones were not. Is that really a better situation? I don't think anyone who really stops to think about it would say yes.
Second, anyone who is uncomfortable with hiring the Ripoff Report to act as a neutral liaison to deal with their customers is certainly free to hire another third party to do the same thing or they can simply do the legwork themselves. Most marketing and PR companies can do virtually all the same things we do, albeit at a far greater expense.
Third, and to specifically address your "conflict of interest" question - when a company joins our Corporate Advocacy Program, this is never kept a secret. We fully disclose our relationship with anyone who joins the program because we never want to keep consumers in the dark about this - in fact, it's exactly the opposite. A company who joins the program is entitled to be recognized and praised for making such a significant commitment to customer service, so we're more than happy to let our readers know about this.
What about the BBB? They take in complaints, providing a forum for consumers to complain - they too have a service to take care of their members. If a complaint comes into the BBB about a company and they are not a member, many BBB offices immediately contacts the company to become a member and pay the BBB fees. To date, Rip-off Report has no sales people, we don't contact anyone to become a member of our Corporate Advocacy Program.
[Bernstein Comment: Frankly, I don't buy this argument at all and think the BBB is similarly conflicted!]
7. Do you have any changes to the ROR site planned that will be helpful to consumers, businesses or both?
The biggest change is something that actually happened last year. In response to people demanding other choices for how to resolve complaints, we created an arbitration program that is modeled after the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy or "UDRP".
What is the UDRP? Well, if you are a trademark owner (say Coca-Cola) and someone registers a domain name that uses your trademark (like www.Coke.com), you can file a UDRP proceeding in order to get that domain name transferred back to you. Obviously, domain name registrars like GoDaddy cannot simply accept a company's word when they claim that someone else has registered a domain name illegally, so the UDRP process was created in order to provide an expedited procedure through which domain name disputes can be resolved quickly and inexpensively by a neutral third party.
Like a UDRP dispute, Ripoff Report's arbitration program allows anyone to dispute the accuracy of a report via expedited arbitration. Of course, because it would be a conflict of interest to have Ripoff Report to act as the judge, we have contracted that service out to a retired judge from the Arizona Court of Appeals who is completely neutral and who has extensive experience acting as an arbitrator/mediator. Under our program, the company or other party wishing to dispute the accuracy of a report can begin an arbitration proceeding using a very simple complaint form. Their position and supporting evidence is sent to the arbitrator and also to the author of the report who is given a chance to respond with any supporting evidence they want to offer. The matter is then decided by the arbitrator who will consider all of the evidence and then make a written determination as to the accuracy of any disputed statements.
The most common question, of course is this - what happens if the arbitrator finds the report is false? Will it be removed?
The answer is this - the arbitrator's decision will be appended to the beginning of any affected report and it will explain in clear terms what the arbitrator's decision was. If the report is determined to be false, then the arbitrator's decision will clearly say that, and it will be located at the top of the page where everyone can see it first. Then, the original report will be located beneath the arbitrator's decision so although it won't be removed, it will be effectively mitigated and debunked by the arbitrator's ruling. This is very similar to what happens in a UDRP proceeding or in any court case - if the plaintiff wins, they get a ruling which says they are right, but that doesn't mean the original court records are destroyed or hidden from view.
Anyone who is interested in more information about the arbitration program is welcome to send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll send you the forms, rules, and other details about the program.
[Bernstein Comment: This is a fascinating concept and, again, I'd like to hear from anyone who's tried to use ROR's UDRP program.]
(aka blatant self-promotion)
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GUEST AUTHORS are very welcome
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appearing in this publication. Case histories, experience-based
lessons, commentary on current news events and editorial opinion are
all eligible for consideration. Submission is not a guarantee of
ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7
access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full
spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response,
planning & training. He has been in the public relations field
since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence
and investigative reporting. Write to email@example.com.
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