Sir Fred Goodwin, the Japanese Earthquake and your online business

Sir Fred GoodwinSir Fred Goodwin is a *anker. A legal “super injunction” prevents me from filling in the first consonant as the courts have agreed it is illegal for anyone to publish or mention anything which refers to the profession of this disgraced former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Newspapers and the broadcast media have been very careful to only publish information which was released under privilege in the House of Commons. The traditional media cannot really comment or report what is being said – illegally – online.

Under the terms of the injunction – which is so stringent it is actually illegal to know of its existence – it would be very remiss of me to provide a link to an article on troubles at RMJM the firm of architects, where Sir Fred was previously a consultant. Equally I would be in contempt of court if I were to state anything that connected the *anker to an alleged adulterous affair.

But therein lies the problem – the courts may be able to ban the traditional media and may well even take me to court too for what I have written in this article. But here’s the court’s problem – there are thousands of websites and thousands of comments as well as thousands of Tweets and Facebook updates all of which are spreading rumours and allegations about Sir Fred. Even if these rumours are indeed true, all of them currently published are in Contempt of Court – an offence which carries a potential prison sentence. So what are we to do – send thousands of people to prison for – if it turns out this way – publishing the truth? Or should we be updating the legal system so it catches up with the Internet?

The Sir Fred Goodwin injunction is an example of how out-of-date our current laws are to cope with the online world we now live in. The case is also an example of how rumour and counter-rumour can spread and become “established fact”, even if it is untrue.

The *anker’s situation is no different, in essence, to the problems faced in Japan. On BBC Radio Five Live this morning an interviewee in the area hit by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami told presenter Shelagh Fogarty that no-one really knew what to believe any more because of the rumours and chatter on Facebook, Twitter and on blogs covering the disaster. In particular, there are hundreds of different rumours and counter-rumours circulating about the so-called “meltdown” at nuclear power stations in Japan.

In the face of such rumours, what is the Japanese Government to do? Well, they appear to be resorting to the traditional media – going on TV and making statements in the hope that this will quash the inaccurate online chit-chat. It’s not working; just look at some of the Tweets about a Japanese Chernobyl. In a very similar way it is like Sir Fred, resorting to traditional ways of dealing with rumour, only to find that those old-fashioned ways no longer work. In the past you could get rid of rumours with a carefully timed TV announcement, or by using the courts to prevent those rumours from spreading. Not any more.

That problem also extends to you and your business. What happens if some of your customers start spreading rumours about you or your company? Even if they are true – you are not in control of what is going on. And if they are fabrications,  you could be in deep doo-doo. Unlike Sir Fred Goodwin or the Japanese Government, you should not try the old-fashioned ways of handling this difficulty. What you have to do is take ownership of the online space. You have to Tweet more than anyone else, write more blogs than anyone else, do more Facebook wall writing than anyone else. You have to have an online footprint so large it literally stamps out the offending rumours.

And, what’s more important, is that you have to do this BEFORE any rumours spread. You have to “own” the online space for your subject or your expertise. If you do – and rumours start – they fade into the background. No matter how much the rumour-mill turns, your extensive and massive online presence will wipe it out. In other words, Sir Fred would not have needed an injunction if he had been in charge of his online presence and was able to obliterate those rumours by being more obvious than them. Equally, if the Japanese Government had more Twitter accounts, was commenting on thousands of Facebook walls and concentrated on its online activities first, traditional media second, the spread of rumours about the disaster would be so much less obvious.

Nowadays, no matter what business you run, the only way to cope with rumours – whether they are spread by customers or staff – is to own the Internet footprint for your subject. Injunctions and statements to the traditional media are now ineffective. Only by doing massive amounts of online work – before rumours spread  and while they are circulating – can you ever hope in the future to be sure that the right impression of your business is conveyed. You no longer have a choice; you simply have to do loads and loads and loads of online activity. It’s that – or have everyone criticise your for being a *anker.

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