As far back as the Roman Empire, it was recognised that once a reputation has been damaged it can be very hard to regain. Socrates' wisdom applies as much to brands as to individuals, but working out how to apply it in the online world is particularly challenging. The ease of posting content online means that every brand will face criticism of one kind or another from time to time. Identifying which attacks matter and require a response is crucial. 

When should brands respond to online attacks?

Putting to one side customer service handling, a judgment call has to be taken at an early stage of a potential brand reputational crisis.  Is this a story which is likely to grow and cause real damage, or will it naturally fade away without intervention?  Each story has its own particular factors, but some themes can be identified:

  • Former employees with (embarrassing) information from inside the brand and/or an axe to grind are particularly dangerous if ignored, but can often be dealt with easily
  • Stories involving alleged illegality (eg corruption) or unethical practices (eg use of child labour) are high risk in terms of their future consequences
  • Stories about individual misbehaviour by senior staff at the brand are very likely to get a reaction from the individual concerned (who may demand legal action be taken), but much less likely to cause real harm to the brand as a whole
  • Look out for attacks which seem to be from multiple credible sources or which are backed up by documents; the mainstream media is much more likely to publish these
  • Heavy-handed responses to 'humorous' brand re-workings or genuinely felt consumer concerns are very likely to backfire
  • It's easy to forget (particularly if you're a senior executive reading a serious attack on your brand) that the overwhelming majority of online content is barely read at all, let alone acted on

Assuming that you do want to take action, what legal options are there?

A legal approach will only rarely be the right response to online brand attack, but if you do want to consider that route, there is likely to be a range of options available.
Most online content involves more than one country, including:

  • The main country/countries in which the brand is based
  • The location of the poster of the content
  • The location of the website host or platform owner

In each country concerned different legal options are likely to be available and choosing the right tool for the job matters.  You'll need to quickly weigh up the various options, which might include:

  • Asking a social network or web host to remove content because it infringes their terms and conditions (most prohibit defamatory content and IP infringement)
  • A direct complaint to the originator of the content if you know who and where they are.  Your complaint might rely on any of defamation, copyright infringement, unfair competition, breach of confidence, breach of an employment contract or a number of other potential causes of action, all depending on the nature of content
  • For anonymous content, getting a Court order to require a third party (eg the social network) to hand over the identity details of the poster
  • In the most serious cases, getting an injunction requiring the removal of the content