Research shows that positive reviews on online review sites such as Yelp are actively driving consumer’s buying behaviors. And there’s no surprise that negative reviews have also have an impact.

What is surprising, however, is that despite the impact these reviews have on a company’s revenue stream, there have been very few laws to protect a business from fake reviews, especially those done anonymously. An Internet free speech case that will be litigated in the Virginia Supreme Court later this month may change this.

In early 2012, Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed in Home and Office Cleaning Services, discovered an unfavorable comment about his business on Yelp. This one comment was soon followed by several other negative comments over the next few weeks. The harsh critiques had a very apparent impact on Hadeed’s bottom line. His business revenues decreased by 30 percent, 80 employees were laid off and six of his company’s trucks were sold. As outlined in the recent Wall Street Journal article:

Hadeed sued seven reviewers for defamation and wants Yelp to reveal their true identities. The Alexandria Circuit Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals were in favor of Hadeed’s lawsuit, by holding Yelp in contempt for not releasing the names of the reviewers. Yelp appealed to the state Supreme Court by protesting that the reviews are protected by the First Amendment. This case could set precedence if the court mandates that Yelp reveal the reviewers’ identities. And it could present new guidelines on Internet censorship, which could have a lasting impact on online reviews.

While a number of business-to-consumer companies will be watching the outcome of this case with great interest, business-to-business companies should also pay close attention.

According to a recent survey published by Deloitte on exploring strategic risks, 81 percent of senior management and board member respondents cited reputation as the No. 1 risk they are concerned about. The survey also found that the need to protect reputation and its rise as the key strategic risk is reflected in senior executives and board members listing social media as the biggest technology disrupter to reputation.

A recent Guardian article confirms that the disruption social media can have on a B2B company’s brand, detailing a number of recent examples of companies including BP and Exxon Mobile that were “brandjacked” after imposters took to social media on the brand’s behalf.

So how can both B2B and B2C companies proactively protect themselves from charlatans until the laws catch up? Using Greentarget’s Client Engagement Process, here are some specific tips:

  • Discover: It’s imperative that companies have a good sense of self and understand how their brand is perceived online if they’d like to protect it and proactively manage their online reputation on an ongoing basis. In a recent blog post about how brands can clean up their online reputation, Gini Dietrich, who writes for the blog Spin Sucks, outlines some concrete examples of how companies may proceed with such an audit and suggests they move forward with traditional searches on Google as well less traditional searches on the Glassdoor. It’s also crucial that companies keep up this online monitoring process in real-time.
  • Discern: Once a company has a clearer understanding of how its brand is represented on the Internet, it can use this intel as momentum to develop a strategic approach on how it would like to manage their reputation online moving forward. Make sure that the strategy aligns with the company’s larger reputational goals. For example, say that an accounting firm has a larger goal of wanting to boost its reputation related to its “business valuation” services. During the discovery process it was uncovered that an unsatisfied client wrote a negative “tweet” about a bad experience he had with the accounting firm related to his business’ valuation, and shared this disdain with his 1,000-plus followers. As a next step, the accounting firm should think about its strategy on how it would address these negative remarks, and more broadly think about what the strategy should be to promote the accounting firm’s capabilities related to business valuations moving forward.
  • Develop: After the online audit has been assessed, the next step would be for a company to develop an integrated plan on how it may manage its online reputation moving forward. Keeping the accounting firm example in mind, one aspect of this plan may be to create a content strategy that would give the accounting firm the opportunity to create and share content related to its business valuation offerings to engage current and potential consumer bases. In addition, the plan may also include a crisis management strategy on how the business should address negative remarks moving forward.
  • Direct: Once the accounting firm has a plan for how it will enhance its online reputation and protect its brand implementation comes next. The accounting firm could be positioning thought leaders in the media on topics related to business valuations, or perhaps writing weekly posts on its website.
  • Demonstrate: Once the campaign has been up and running for a few months and if implemented effectively, results via media coverage quoting experts in the accounting firm on the business valuation topic, or direct responses from clients related to the content released on the accounting firm’s site should be rolling in on an ongoing basis, producing quality outcomes.
  • Deliver: The final step is to assess if the accounting firm was able to move the needle related to how its stakeholders view its business valuation offerings. Specific things that may be taken a closer look at, including: Have accountants from this practice gotten more inquiries from clients on the firm’s business valuation offerings following the campaign push? Has there been an increase in traffic on the practice’s web page?

Managing a company’s online reputation can be a complicated process, however having a specific plan in place will lessen the blow the next time a company is faced with a negative review online, or unfavorable comments about their brand on social media.