This isn’t something new. Smear campaigns have been around since the first two competitors parked across from each other in the city of UR’s bazaar more than 6000 years ago (about.com) trying to get customers to buy their brand of camel dung. By my calculations, it is the “second oldest” profession on earth. And to that end – one could ask which is a day’s more honest work? That’s another discussion entirely. Back to the topic at hand, the question is posed: is it right or wrong to engage in a smear campaign especially when the internet comes into play? It’s a jungle out there right? Business is civilized war. Companies have to do whatever it takes to be number one. It becomes a sudden case of tunnel vision on a goal where all other priorities are rescinded. No matter the path, no matter the collateral damage the goal must be achieved. Companies and the people running them firmly believe that behavior is not only reasonable but morally acceptable. On the other side of that coin are companies or customers who have been wronged by a company and resort to a smear campaign to be heard and to get justice. It’s an ethical dilemma depending on which side of the smear you’re on.
And that’s where “attacking” companies get themselves into trouble. They lose sight of the original motivation that started the company in the first place: the betterment of mankind (and to make a profit). In the old days they had their ways even without the World Wide Web. Take for instance Thomas Edison. He’s remembered as a genius inventor who coined the stirring quote, “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” (www.thomasedison.com). I can’t tell you how many times my own father told me that one growing up. But along with some great quotes and life changing inventions, Thomas Edison was active in the smear campaign business too. In the 1880’s there was a battle of “currents” between Edison and Westinghouse as to which kind of electric current was more efficient. Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla were on the “alternating current” side while Edison was on the “direct” current side. But what some may not know is that Edison was determined to equate Westinghouse’s name and ideas with “death”. Edison said that if he were to kill somebody, he would use the Westinghouse way. He even went so far as calling the first death by electrocution (using Westinghouse’s alternating current) getting “Westinghoused”. Meanwhile maintaining that his direct current “…merely brings eternal life and prolongs erections.” (www.cracked.com). In the end, the execution was botched and Edison eventually jumped on the “alternating Current” (AC) bandwagon. It didn’t occur to Edison at the time that Westinghouse and Tesla’s proposals were accurate, more efficient and better for customers. He only saw that his direct current “brand” was going to make him money and he had to do whatever it took to eliminate his competitor even in the face of indisputable fact that his product was inferior.
Fast forward to today. We’ve got the internet. Facebook is master of the universe – from the social media perspective. Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, and the list goes on. Companies these days are no longer asking themselves “Should we be doing social media” but “Are we getting it right?” (falkowinc.com). And when it comes to smear campaigns, as described in the first paragraph, there are two sides of the coin. In either case, companies can protect themselves by keeping a digital vigil on their brand. They’re one Google search away from finding out what people are saying about them. But whichever stance companies choose, either “ignore and look the other way” or “proactively observe”, they can be dismantled by a single Tweet (fabricated or true) or by an anonymous blog post by a mom of two in the middle of nowhere Iowa. Something so seemingly insignificant can, deserved or not, snowball into catastrophe.
Scott Van Duzer found out the hard way that hugging President Obama would cause a media assault on his restaurant. Angered republicans battered his Yelp page with negative reviews of his business – even though they hadn’t been there. In the end, patrons of his pizzeria came to the rescue drowning out the negativists. Others aren’t so lucky. The Sri Lankan musician DeLon was linked to a fabricated story that he was arrested in Thailand for disturbing acts with children. Even after vindication from the Sri Lankan government stating that the story was indeed fabricated, the damage had been done and he had to cancel his tour (spinsucks.com).
What about the Chuck Hagel debacle? What started off as a joke exploded into a smear campaign. Stories spread like wildfire linking him to an anti-Israel organization called “Friends of Hamas”. There is no such group. Regardless, opponents of Hagel’s appointment, stories about his involvement with “Friends of Hamas” continued to proliferate regardless of accuracy. A fake “Friends of Hamas” website was even created as a joke. Opponents (like Mike Huckabee) even started repeating the rumor without any forethought to fact checking (mediabistro.com). Chuck could have quickly released a “truth about Friends of Hamas” statement quelling the runaway conversation and rumor (inc.com). He either didn’t know about it until too late or chose to ignore it.
These have been clear examples of victims of internet and social media smear campaigns. But what about companies on the attack? Microsoft earlier this year started a campaign against Google and its Gmail brand crafting the term “Scroogled”. Microsoft’s claim is that Google screens each e-mail sent for key words that they can in turn target with more accurate advertisements (dailytech.com). As far as I can tell – this example is truth. But what does that say about Microsoft? They’re position is that they are providing a community service by shedding light on what a competitor does they see as unethical or wrong. In some cases, while intentions are good, can backfire and create, for the attacker, a reputation of a “tattler”.
What to take away from this. Creating a campaign to discredit a competitor using fabricated data is unethical. Looking at the Facebook v. Google+ dilemma – planting negative stories about a competitor is not only unethical but incredibly stupid. Eventually, in most cases and in this case in particular, the truth percolates to the surface. And here’s Facebook, a titan among social media outlets trying to create negative press about a competitor. Facebook, now in the eyes of the public, has created for themselves a sense of weakness when none existed. If attacked – and the facts are fabricated or taken out of context, start a truth campaign of your own and try steering the conversation toward testimonials of satisfied customers which can push the negative comments down on the Google search. But first and foremost, before any of these options can work: ask yourself if your product, service or customer relations are lacking? If there is an underlying problem there, you don’t have a leg to stand on. None of the above will work if your company sucks. The first order of business is to get the company back on track by creating services or products customers are satisfied with and repairing the company’s reputation (spinsucks.com).
If the attack is the truth – consider releasing a statement, “Ya we botched it. Give us a second chance”. People will generally forgive a person or organization if they admit fault. It’s when they try to hide, ignore or retaliate – even in the face of indisputable truth – people will remember. With reputation in shambles, that is a hard setback to bounce back from.