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Web of Lies? Brands Hire to Secure Reputation

Stocks in this article: JNJ PEP KO

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Several years ago, B.L. Ochman ran a business called "Rent a Kvetch," in which clients hired her to complain for them and get results. Most of the complaints had to do with lousy customer service from large, impersonal companies. "In the '80s, there was no way for average people to get heard," she says.

Enter the Internet, which has afforded a sounding board for anyone who wants to complain -- anonymously or otherwise -- and gives erstwhile powerless individuals the chance to thump a company's reputation.

"It could be one kid in Bulgaria making a video about your product, but that's going to cause a problem if it starts spreading around," says Ochman, now a director at Proof Digital Media, the online media arm of the public relations agency Burson-Marsteller -- the company that helped handle reputation damage control for Exxon Mobil (XOM) in the wake of the Valdez oil spill in 1989 and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) after seven people in greater Chicago died from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol caplets in 1982.

In spite of the virtual nature of the Web, anything anyone posts there tends to stick around forever -- old news stories and abandoned blogs alike. To that end, companies such as Burson Marsteller are employing multiple monitoring tools to keep track of who's saying what about their clients online.

"Before you can begin to manage a reputation, you have to figure out what's being said," she says. "You can't just rely on Google (GOOG) Alerts anymore. Before you really begin to get involved online you have to launch a listening campaign."

The stubborn permanence of online condemnation is a common problem among clients of Reputation Defender, a venture-funded Redwood City, Calif., company that specializes in monitoring and managing online reputations for businesses and their executives. "It might be a lawsuit that they were involved with 10 years ago," says Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation Defender. "A few of them have had very high-profile divorces. And some of the really large companies are dealing with dedicated attack sites -- Web sites specifically aimed at criticizing them."

Several Fortune 100 companies are among the customers who pay for Reputation Defender's My Edge Pro service, with which the company helps ensure that the initial results of a Web search garner links to positive information -- such as a company or employee's official bio -- rather than years-old negative news about a company or its executives.

For smaller businesses, Reputation Defender will help create positive content to post on the Web. For larger companies, "We're just moving their best content to the top of the search," Fertik says. The methodology of moving positive content to the top is a trade secret, he says.

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