Going on the offensive: The use of attack sites in reputation management
Contributor Chris Silver Smith discusses counterattack campaigns, how they are used and why they are not a best practice for online reputation management professionals.
In Online Reputation Management (ORM) cases where there is no realistic option to sue for defamation, reputation repair typically involves merely using a defensive approach, in which you focus on displacing negative content through optimizing positive content.
An unspoken secret of the industry is the use of a counterattack campaign to attempt to pressure the attacker into halting an ongoing smear campaign and/or removing negative materials. Is this a good stratagem, and should reputation industry professionals be involved in it?
I have heard some industry professionals use the term “Dark Site” or “Dark Website” to refer to these counterattack websites, but those terms mainly are used to speak about websites that have not gone live yet but are kept ready in waiting to be launched if needed.
This term may come from the crisis management subcategory of the reputation industry, where companies may have an alternate website lurking in the wings ready to be launched when dealing with some type of anticipated potential public relations crisis.
In the context of counterattack sites, I believe people have used “Dark Sites” to show a hostile party the website temporarily or before it has fully gone live. This is likely meant as a sort of threat of quid pro quo — “if you don’t take down the website/materials we dislike, we are going to launch this site to harm you.”
Why people use counterattack sites
There are some cases where a standard ORM campaign is insufficient or so disappointing that people may become drawn to pushing out a counterattack strategy. Standard ORM campaigns take time to work, and people become impatient. Google’s algorithm can be biased towards negative content for some reasons.
If you get some negative content displaced through search engine optimization (SEO), it may not stay displaced, since Google frequently makes changes to its search algorithms. If you used litigation to obtain a court order to remove something, active haters may keep republishing the content on other URLs, enabling it to keep coming back on you.
Motives for counterattacking also arise from human nature, of course. Reputation attack victims are naturally angry at their online attackers in many cases, and they may want revenge. The internet is still like the Wild West, where people once had to protect themselves by employing a strong offense to discourage attacks.
Reputation industry pros — both internet marketing agencies and attorneys — may also feed into this because they want to impress their clients by demonstrating they will fight for them and leave no stone unturned in trying to get their reputations fixed.
Perhaps the thinking behind leaving no stone unturned really means rationalizing high fees.
Going on the offensive can be seductive!
When working in online reputation management, one rapidly realizes it is extremely easy to destroy rather than build and repair. It’s easier to conduct a reputation-destruction campaign than to repair a reputation.
Think about it. To destroy a reputation, you need only one item to appear on page one of a name search. To repair a reputation, you may need to optimize 10 items of content to push a negative item off of page one.
Threatening to destroy an attacker’s reputation if they do not remove some negative content is an attractive idea because it makes the goal of permanently removing the bad stuff seem very possible. Outside of litigation, a “mutually-assured destruction” approach might appear to be the only avenue for being freed from negative materials hampering business and personal life goals.
Fighting back is also perceived to be morally acceptable. In the real world, the law recognizes a person may kill someone in self-defense. Killing someone’s reputation online may seem like the equivalent in the virtual world.
Due to the weaknesses of consumer protection laws in the US and the legally-enabled resistance of publishers to help with online reputation/defamation issues, people have little to no protection. Given this environment, people often resort to trying to get their own justice or protecting themselves any way that they can.
An example of a reputation counterattack website
Here I’ll describe one instance in which people have gone on the offensive and launched a counterattack website to get back at those who have negatively impacted their own reputations.
PETA Kills Animals.
In 2005, apparently on behalf of fast food and meat industries, the public affairs firm Berman and Company (via the nonprofit “Center for Consumer Freedom”), launched the PETAKillsAnimals.com counterattack website to allege that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization unnecessarily euthanizes animals, and that it is a terrorist organization that is violent, arsonist and more.
It is unclear precisely how effective or ineffective the PETA Kills Animals website has been since it launched. Its materials probably have resulted in some numbers of PETA members resigning or opting not to renew annual membership. The movement probably damaged PETA in the public’s eye by some degree, but PETA continues to have over 6 million members, and the counterattack website did not cause them to fold up shop and go home during the past 13 years.
Overall, I would say that the PETA Kills Animals website is largely unsuccessful because it likely damages the companies that desire to deflect criticism from PETA. I am neither complimenting nor criticizing PETA, the food or meat industries, I’m just objectively reviewing the reputation management strategy involved.
While the attacking website is likely very satisfying for food and meat industry executives and companies that want to defend against PETA’s criticisms, this counterattack website strategy is ultimately little more than an ad hominem attack. In rhetoric circles, ad hominems are considered very poor strategies in a debate because they do not effectively persuade against any points that the other party may have made.
Berman and Company apparently also represent anti-union interests and the alcohol and tobacco industries. Amusingly, its founder and principal, Richard Berman, has been compared to Nick Naylor, the main character of “Thank You For Smoking,” a film about a lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
Fascinatingly, PETA subsequently published a blog post, “Why We Euthanize,” to explain how the scale of unwanted companion animals, as well as terminally sick and injured animals, forces them to do society’s “dirty work.” An independent writer researched and launched WhyPETAEuthanizes.com to counter the claims of the PETA Kills Animals website, a “counter-counterattack” website, if you will.
Are attack sites effective?
When I first entered the fray of online reputation management, I already had many years of corporate marketing and public affairs experience under my belt. When first confronted by situations that made one consider the possibility of launching counterattack websites, I thought it was a potentially risky and weak tactic. After many more years of online reputation management, I strongly feel that “returning fire” in such situations is almost always ineffective.
It is ineffective in many instances because the original attacker(s) rarely has as much at stake as those they attack. They may not be reliant upon their online reputation for their incomes or for living their personal lives as they wish. They may be more motivated by emotion than self-preservation.
Unless you have some serious “dirt” on these attackers — equivalent to whatever they said in their original attack — you’re unlikely to succeed in pressuring them into removing the content.
You will also find that irrational, crazy people will not respond in a logical manner. Back in the times of the Cold War, where America and Russia pursued the conceptual impasse called “mutually assured destruction,” both sides relied upon the fact that if either first pulled the trigger, in many ways, both sides stood to lose.
Another reason launching a counterattack is ineffective is that when you begin “returning fire,” you may call the original attacker’s attention back onto you, reinspiring them to attack further, and they may then redouble their attack.
One should not awaken the sleeping dragon!
In some cases, counterattacking opens one up to a greater legal liability. If you are a victim of someone’s unfair attack, a court may be less inclined to provide you with relief if you have already punished the opposition through counterattacking. I’ve read quite a few cases where the people conducting a counterattack went too far in their fervor, leaving themselves vulnerable to lawsuits and on the hook for pricey judgments.
Finally, from a public affairs perspective, when the general public becomes aware you are attacking someone who criticized you, they may feel more sympathy for the attacker than for you. In many cases, the person attacked may be perceived to be bigger and more powerful than the person who first attacked them. Returning an attack may cast your attacker in the role of the underdog or martyr. In such cases, fighting back could turn public sentiment against you.
Are counterattack campaigns ethical for ORM professionals?
For all the reasons outlined above, it is highly unlikely for a negative counterattack campaign to succeed, so facilitating this sort of an offensive for an online reputation management client would not be in their best interests.
Depending on the nature of the campaign, it might even be illegal or legally risky. Be aware that laws concerning harassment, invasion of privacy and defamation vary from state to state. Working outside the law would not be considered ethical in any case, of course.
Online reputation management professionals are supposed to be the people who help others clean up reputations. If you are working to tear someone down, then you are doing the very thing we all work so hard to fight against.
An ORM professional who deploys a destructive negative campaign is somewhat like having a doctor who uses his skills to injure people.
If you embark upon a negative campaign, you will be using time and resources on a risky strategy that can be more productively spent on a positive public relations (PR) campaign. It is not good to waste resources on negativity when one could be focused on promoting a client.
There are instances in public relations where one should rebut false claims or misrepresentations made. Good crisis management almost always focuses upon acknowledging, apologizing or being as positive as possible in acknowledging wrongdoing or rebuttal. It generally should not involve an ad hominem attack where one seeks to divert critical attention by attacking an opponent to try to undermine their claims.
In summary, counterattack campaigns are rarely ever a realistic option, and if you are an ORM professional and think you may have an exceptional case, consider the likelihood that any negative campaign may fail, or worse, backfire.
If you still think such a campaign has a realistic chance of succeeding, think again. The best approach to an online attack is to work on mitigating the damage and reducing its visibility over time. Even if you think you have thought of all the possible outcomes, you may find yourself surprised when people do not react the way you predicted. When a negativity campaign fails, it may backfire terribly.
The ORM industry should stick to higher ethical standards and avoid this practice. Let’s make it easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. ORM pros should only ever try to build up their clients and should never be involved in trying to tear others down, no matter the reason.