​Will you pay to bury your sordid past?

An industry-wide look at the blurred line between reputation management and disreputable conduct suggests that SMEs have a lot to learn when it comes to business ethics

It all started with an enquiry from an ex-police officer looking to bury the past.

According to marketing and reputation management firm, Reboot Online, a man who identified himself as “James” claimed that his father was a victim of character assassination, and he was concerned that a simple Google search of his father’s name brought up a slew of negative articles. 

It didn’t take long for Reboot Online to spot the red flags early on. They found that “James” was actually the person that had the negative press and his photo and details were on a convicted paedophile register, in an alarming news story, and on a name-and-shame website. The company immediately pulled the plug on that project, stating “we help clients for all sort of reasons but we won’t help with that.”

But are there companies out there that would take “James” on as a client? Curious to find out, Reboot Online commissioned an industry-wide study which revealed 69 per cent of reputation management firms are comfortable with hiding the online profiles of convicted criminals. 

What about a code of ethics?

SMEs can benefit from setting up a code of ethics to define the essentials of how people within an organisation will interact with one another, as well as how they will communicate with any customers or clients they serve and any vendors or suppliers with whom they come into contact. Currently, two in five companies don’t have an ethics policy because it’s something they feel they don’t need, according to a Close Brothers Asset Finance survey of 500 SMEs earlier this year.

Despite a significant number of UK SMEs feeling they don’t need an ethics policy, over half (56 per cent) stated that they have been on the receiving end of unethical business practices, with one in ten (8 per cent) businesses saying it happens ‘a lot’ and over a quarter (27 per cent) stating it happens ‘on occasion’. 

“With business growth high on the agenda for many SME owners in 2016, the importance of good ethical behaviour will play an increasing role in how their businesses are perceived, both internally and externally. Discussions around ethical policies must be a priority if businesses are to reach their full potential,” Mike Randall, CEO of Close Brothers Asset Finance said.

“Even though many smaller organisations have an informal understanding about how business is done, there are clear advantages to having a formal code in place – not least because they will inform business practice and greatly enhance the organisation’s reputation,” he added.

Deleting the rants and faking the raves

According to a report from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and reputation management firm Igniyte, one in five UK businesses pay up to £30,000 a year to fix review-based mudslinging by rivals.

Following an investigation last year into allegations of fake reviews and paid endorsements, CMA found that some companies are writing or commissioning both positive and negative reviews online to boost their own ratings on review sites and to undermine the competition.

The impact on businesses – especially in the hospitality industry – can be disastrous. In fact, one in six UK businesses believe a malicious review could destroy their business entirely.

The investigation also found that some review sites sidestepped the public forum in dealing with genuine negative reviews, encouraging the business to respond to the customer’s complaint offline. This may solve an individual complaint, but this practice can potentially mislead consumers who trust online reviews as a reliable source of information.

With CMA research suggesting 80 per cent of consumers make buying decisions based on online reviews, hiding or falsifying reviews can completely annihilate smaller businesses. Consumers may find it difficult to differentiate genuine reviews from paid-for raves and malicious trolls paid to taint rival businesses. 

“Used properly, review sites and forums are a force for good – giving consumers a much needed voice. Paying for fake reviews and placing unsubstantiated content doesn’t fix the real business issues – if your business is subject to genuine negative reviews, the only way to overcome it is by listening to your customers and addressing their concerns,” Caroline Skipsey, Igniyte’s managing partner explained.

Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs); businesses have been advised the following:

  • Do not create the false impression that content has been written by a consumer
  • Do not mislead consumers about the identity of the reviewer

Review sites have also been warned to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Be clear about how reviews are obtained and checked
  • Publish all reviews – even negative ones, provided they are genuine and lawful
  • Disclose commercial relationships with businesses that appear on their site
  • Have procedures in place to identify and remove fake reviews​

Ultimately, business ethics in the digital age depends on behaving above-board online and offline by being accountable to business partners, employees and customers.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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