Imagine this: you run a boutique law firm with an engaged client base and public visibility. It is hit with an employee discrimination lawsuit, landing your firm's name in the news and across social media outlets with hundreds of mentions in a matter of weeks. Some of what is published truthfully reports on the situation, but much of the attention is malicious in nature, in some cases promoting false information. These materials dominate the first page of your practice's Google results for weeks, then months. Your prospects and revenues drop.
This type of reputation crisis happens every day. Depending on the size of your firm and its area of specialization, the reasons differ. If yours is a white shoe firm that has managed to stay out of the news except as an expert commentator, that situation can quickly change if your files are hacked. If yours is a criminal defense firm and represents controversial clients, you may be as newsworthy as they are . . . and attract as much reputational damage.
If you are like many attorneys, your closest association with reputation management may be referring your clients to firms that specialize in it. Increasingly, though, you may find you need such a provider yourself. Common reasons are:
• Hacking of your database or files, with confidential materials made public
• Invasive media coverage about your firm
• Unwanted publicity about your personal life, perhaps resulting from a divisive divorce or a DUI
• Bad reviews on "Google My Business," AVVO, or other platforms
Compounding this potential damage is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which spares website owners from legal responsibility regarding material1 published on their sites. It has not been updated to accommodate today's platforms since its passing in 1996. Whereas in the EU there is a Right to Be Forgotten, there is no such analog in the U.S.
In most such reputation crises, there is often only one solution: to strategically publish substantial content online that will rank higher than the offending material. There is rarely a quick way to do this. New content placed online must organically rise high enough to reach the first page of Google and other search engines. There are tools to help it move up faster, but few work at warp speed. Like having insurance, your best play is to have such content and review management programs in place before you need it. Few law firms do.
Building an intentional online reputation management (ORM) strategy is essential for shaping public perception and "owning" the Google and other search engine results that appear when your practice is researched. It's vital for attorneys and their firms to showcase facts and examples of their expertise before it is attacked or damaged, so they have a dominant role in the information that is found about them online.
Although conventional wisdom may suggest deliberately keeping a low profile online, this is not an effective solution in the digital world. It makes you vulnerable to what any third party says about you. Without a strong digital footprint-an accurate and informative body of content that is associated with your name on the internet-your defense is weakened against online threats to your reputation. The average Google page has 10 entries. How many of those do you and your practice own or manage? Too often, the answer is 1 to 3. That leaves lots of room for defamatory, inaccurate, and unwanted content that third parties can intentionally publish about you. Your results are also vulnerable to being flooded by social media and mainstream media commentary about your crisis.
Building Digital Assets: Reserve Your Websites
Our firm has worked on ORM cases where "hate sites" (malicious websites created about and/or impersonating attorneys and law firms) have been hosted on website addresses that mimic the firm's name, causing the content to appear on the first page of Google when anyone runs a search of the firm. The purpose of such sites is to denigrate and attract inappropriate attention, to your practice.
You can minimize the risk of this kind of unwanted information showing up on the first page of Google by proactively securing your name online. Purchasing all the appropriate domain extensions (".com's") for your firm is the single most important step you can take to establish, build, and protect your and your firm's reputation online. This may entail buying 10, 25 or many more domains in a multitude of iterations if your firm is large and potentially a target for a variety of attacks.2 Every attorney should undertake such a protective action. That is what "owning" your brand online is all about.
Building Digital Assets: Other Ways to Raise Your Profile
There are several other steps you can take to minimize the risk of negative or inaccurate information populating search results on you or your firm's name.
• Take control of your image, in a literal sense: Start by ensuring photos that appear of you online are accurate and represent yourself in a way that supports the leadership image you wish to convey. They will safeguard against dissatisfied clients or political operatives raising the profile of unflattering or doctored pictures of you. Video can also be an invaluable tool when posted on high-ranking sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
• Use LinkedIn as your main information hub: As a highly ranked platform on Google, content posted on LinkedIn will rise to the top of Google search results. Adding a "Publications" section with entries that link to your citations will help boost your profile online and add to your "digital firewall." Publishing articles on LinkedIn can also serve this purpose.
• Publish content on a scheduled, consistent basis: Include articles in legal journals and Op-Ed "thought-leadership" pieces in local or mainstream news outlets. Publicize your pro bono work. This type of content is not only essential for owning your brand online but is also a strong marketing tool that will enhance your revenues while building that all-important online profile.
Managing Risk on Review Sites: Google My Business and AVVO
Unsubstantiated sources can publish negative feedback about your firm across online review sites. Competitors, dissatisfied employees, media sources, and "trolls" are all capable of obscuring the truth about your firm. Many law firms don't have the time to manage or maintain review platforms where this commentary may appear. The end result is that when a bad review appears, there is often no buffer of positive reviews to counterbalance it.
This issue often occurs with anonymous reviews on Google My Business, a free service from Google where anyone with a Gmail address can post reviews. Google My Business is the square block of information, typically with a description of your firm and a photograph of the building in which your practice is housed, that appears in the top right corner when many law firms are Googled. If you have a publicly listed phone number, Google simply publishes that platform whether you want it or not. Once it is live, anyone can post a review there.
Review management platforms have been developed specifically for that reason: unhappy clients are far more likely than satisfied ones to post reviews, so these subscriber-based platforms provide an interface that enables firms to invite clients' feedback which can be posted as reviews on a variety of platforms. Google My Business has how-to tips for using the platform and inviting colleagues and clients to share reviews. If this does not pose an ethics violation for you, it is worth looking into.
An AVVO profile contributes to your search engine results. As a high-ranking website, it often appears on the first or second page of a Google search. For SEO (search engine optimization) reasons, the more comprehensive your AVVO profile is, the higher it will appear. So, while recent ethics rules keep attorneys from proactively using AVVO's review feature, if you are comfortable using it for a profile, know that doing so will add to your digital assets online.
The best thing you can do to protect the online image of yourself and your firm is to be proactive in expanding your digital assets to safeguard against negative or defamatory material and reputational crises. Reserving domains in your name, creating content on high-ranking sites, and protecting sensitive personal information are all excellent processes you can initiate before someone else sabotages your image, and they are essential steps for any attorney and/or law firm to take. Monitoring what is said about you on social media and review platforms will keep you on the same page as your audience. Publishing consistently and strategically enables you to manage the conversation-and lead it. For attorneys, that is the optimum place you want to be.