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This article is written by Balasaheb Pandhare pursuing a Diploma in International Business Law. This article has been edited by Ojuswi (Associate Lawsikho). 

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.

Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic compelled governments to impose restrictions and lockdowns in India which resulted in slowing down the business activities in almost all sectors. At the same time, this pandemic turned out to be a huge catalyst in engaging the people of India in online activities.  People are opting for the online modes to carry out different activities such as payments, trading, shopping, education, e-commerce, and business.

Users of the internet are growing rapidly in India. The internet penetration rate is reaching towards 47 percent against the current population. This data mandates every business entity, brand or personality to mark its presence online to catch the markets available online, at the same time they also have to face the criticism of consumers and the general public as the digital platform is available to all. Therefore, anybody can comment on any service providers or product manufacturers whether they avail of services or buy the product or not. This situation has led to maintaining the reputation of the brand, company, business entity, or person in the online form. As consumers nowadays before availing of any services use to conduct online research about such an entity, and use to consider any reviews made against such a product, and then decide whether to move further or not. 

Yelp, an American company, enables customers to comment and post reviews about the product and services available in the local market. Some small business owners from California filed a suit against Yelp alleging that Yelp is managing the negative reviews against them and extorting money from them for advertisements of their services. In Levitt v Yelp Inc. the District Court of California dismissed the complaint of the plaintiff and on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court. Therefore any business owner can create an account and manage the review page of its brand to secure its online reputation. In the Indian context, the Delhi High Court in  Jubilant Foodworks Ltd. v Pratik Vinit and Ors dealt with a case of one student who received a non-vegetarian pizza instead of the vegetarian he ordered, being dissatisfied with this order from Domino’s he tweeted the contact number of the senior officer against this tweet domino’s filed a suit of injunction in Delhi High Court against the student which was later on withdrawn by the company once the student deleted the alleged tweet Hence creating and maintaining a reputation online has become a new challenge for the business entities and there were mushrooming of firms in this area providing services in online reputation management. Against this backdrop, it is desirable to study the phenomenon of online reputation management. This article is an attempt to analyse the concept of online reputation management from both legal and technical perspectives

Online reputation management: a conceptual discourse

Increasing growth of the internet and social media users makes it inevitable for any brand or company operating online to maintain its reputation in the public positively and to avoid or manage any comments or reviews that will injure the reputation of such a business.  This phenomenon of managing online reputation is referred to as online reputation management. It also covers the promotion and expansion of a brand to establish a better relationship with potential consumers and develop an influential online reputation for such a business. In this context, it is necessary to study the concept of online reputation management.

Generally, if any concept is regulated or prohibited by the statute then we can trace the definition of such concept in that statute itself, however, in the case of online reputation management it is neither regulated nor prohibited by any statute in India. Therefore we have to rely on online sources to find out the concept of online reputation management to have a complete understanding.

Meaning and definition

Generally for any academic discourse definitions and meanings are provided in statutes, case laws, or international instruments however the concept of online reputation is not created by the statute or any government entity nor by any business organisation but rather developed as a practice to streamline certain negative publicity by adopting different techniques or strategies by using technology or other skills.  Therefore to trace the meaning of online reputation, we have to take recourse to dictionaries or webpages of those entities that provide services of online reputation management.

Online Reputation Management is the practice of crafting strategies that shape or influence the public perception of an organisation, individual or other entity on the internet. According to Techopedia, Online Reputation Management is a method adopted by an entity to mitigate the effects of negative viral comments and to create proactive marketing strategies for online consumption.

Online reputation can be explained as a general public opinion or knowledge of an entity, individual or corporate internet presence. It signifies the creation and development of personal or professional internet platforms and management of such platforms for positive growth and increased trust among internet users.

Significance of online reputation management

Every business uses to invest for its prosperity and economic development and if such business is dealing in the e-commerce sector then it is inevitable for them to keep their online image clear. As every e-commerce entity is conscious of its online presence and expects greater search visibility. It is proved through research that people use to take and change their decisions based on reviews or comments published on the website of a particular entity about the nature and quality offered by such an entity. Therefore the importance of online reputation management cannot be ignored in today’s era. Recently a South Korean Company Hyundai from its Pakistan Twitter account made a post in support of Kashmir’s freedom struggle with the hashtag #KashmirSolidarityDay against this India summoned the envoy of the Republic of Korea and lodged strong displeasure and the foreign minister of Korea expressed his regret over this. Thereafter the post in question was removed by the Hyundai.

Legal perspectives of online reputation management

In India, any activity either offline or online must have to be carried out within the boundaries of the law. The concept of law is defined under Article 13 of the Constitution of India as it covers law enacted by the competent sovereign legislature, ordinance by-laws, and even customs, subject to the requirement of having the force of law. Therefore, the question is whether the online reputation management strategies practised by companies, brands, or individuals are prohibited or regulated by law. To answer this question we have to explore existing legislation preventing or in any way regulating this practice. No such legislation expressly till the time dealt with the practice of online reputation management, therefore it can be said that subject to any law or decisions of the court online reputation management and strategies adopted for the same are perfectly legal. On the other hand, according to prevailing legal principles in India, whatever is not prohibited is permitted, this aspect was recently endorsed by the highest court of India in Internet and Mobile Association of India v Reserve Bank of India dealing with the regulation of digital currencies by the Reserve Bank of India.

The reputation of any business entity is considered as its property, hence they have a right under law to protect and preserve their property, even the law of crime confers the right to private defense on all people to protect their as well as the property of others in case any offence against such property is in operation. On the contrary, the general public also has a legitimate right to express their opinion about the company brand or individual over the quality and service delivered by such entities as a consumer as well as a general public. At the same time, it must be taken into account by the general public that any right guaranteed to them is not absolute but subject to restrictions imposed by law. In this context Article 19(2) is important to highlight as this article provided the grounds to make a law imposing reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression given to the citizens. Therefore while commenting or making a review of any product one must not defame, use abusive language, or insult such a company or entity both online or online platform. Section 4 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 expressly recognizes all online transactions for legal purposes as it confers legal recognition on electronic data exchange and e-commerce. This Act also lays down distinct offences and penalties if the online platform were used for the commission of any activities mentioned above,  such as making a misleading or false comment, defaming a company online, tempering with computer source code, hacking with the computer system, making offensive comments publication of obscene information, etc,  From this discussion, it can be said that online reputation management is perfectly a legal strategy adopted by an entity to protect its reputation from being damaged online.

Best practices of online reputation management

Every business entity nowadays uses it to protect its online reputation. For this they adopt certain practices either by hiring a firm providing paid services about online reputation management or they may set up a team for online reputation management.  In both cases, they have to adopt certain strategies or best practices to maintain the online reputation of any brand or entity. These best practices are nothing but the set of guidelines, ethics, or ideas that represent the most efficient or prudent course of action in a given business situation.  Such practices may be established by authorities such as regulators, self-regulatory organisations, or governing bodies or they may be internally decided by companies’ management teams.  

Some of the best practices that can be adopted to maintain an online reputation are discussed hereunder. On 9th March 2021, one lady complained about the delayed food delivery from Zomato and a consequent assault on her by the delivery boy because of the adverse review made online against such delivery. However later the delivery boy put forth his version and said that he was assaulted by the lady initially therefore he attacked her as a matter of private defence. Accordingly, police complaints were filed from both sides and the case is ongoing. However, to maintain its online reputation Zomato declared that they will provide every assistance to the lady both in police matters as well as in medical care and they have temporarily suspended the delivery boy as a protocol of escort. The following steps can be taken to ensure online reputation management. 

Ensure maximum online brand exposure

The term online reputation management itself indicates the requirement of the continued online existence of a brand. The brand must ensure that they are exploring almost all social media platforms and creating their profiles on all such platforms.  Generally, prominent social media platforms were used by the majority of brands such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram but in a real sense, deep exploration of the internet is a much-required exercise nowadays.

While proceeding, towards an online platform a brand can have a research and find out which platform is mostly used by their regular customers so that they can focus more, steadily on the platform identified specifically through such research. For this, a company can also create questionnaires and circulate them on its platform. Hence, for brands, it is inevitable to see emerging and best social media platforms.

While remaining active online an entity has to deal with other brands also for related services that are usually referred as business to business transactions. In such cases, one has to develop professional relations with other entities, for such concerns once presence is a must on the platforms like AngelList, Opportunity, LinkedIn, Meetup, etc. At the same time, a brand managing its online reputation also requires vigilance in the area of young generations and their social media attitude which is frequently changing. This covers the relationship between business and customers. They should have complete attention to emerging platforms in these social media sectors such as Snapchat, Wechat, Clubhouse, Telegram, etc.

Therefore, the first and most important strategy to be adopted to have effective online reputation management is to give the fullest exposure to the brand or company on all possible online platforms.

Sony’s PlayStation used to continue to post different types of content engaging consumers on Twitter is an example of showing how to increase followers on Twitter. According to UnMetric, during the last five years alone 12 million followers were added to the PlayStation over Twitter due to the maximum exposure and continued existence over Twitter.

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Time frame scrutiny of social media account

The next important policy that needs to be implemented by the company to maintain its online reputation is time-bound scrutiny of all the accounts, wherever they created their profiles because once they created the number of accounts to give maximum exposure to their product and services they must have to visit the said account day today and have to scrutinise it in the light of recent developments happening around the relevant business sector.  To keep these accounts evergreen they have to post and share content, blogs and Case Comments relevant to respective products and services. This policy will increase the interactiveness of related web pages and be able to get a prominent place during searches. Otherwise, the concerned page may become prone to negative comments or reviews.

The Social media giants Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp decided to remove fake accounts from its platform in the wake of proposed guidelines to be framed by the Government of India to regulate social media in India. As they were accused of spreading fake news and hate speeches in India.

Increase the online visibility of services

The products and services made available by the company must be made visible on relevant accounts or pages. Companies can create separate web pages advertising its product and services. For this, engaging strategies like story-related or news-related events can be created by engaging the blog writers so that it will result in the online visibility of the services offered by a company or brand. 

Tata Motors launched its new car Bolt by taking recourse to Blogadda one of the largest blogging platforms, wherein brands engage with the bloggers from different sectors this strategy will increase the online visibility of the product of Tata motors. 

Linking of employees with social media accounts of entity

To manage the reputation of a business on online platforms, its employee’s support is a must. A company should ensure that the online presence of employees is resulting in strengthening the online reputation of its product and services. The company may insert conditions to that effect in the appointment order or may do this through incentives. But creative employees are proved to be the backbones of any institution. Therefore optimum use of employees by linking their social media accounts or by creating a distinct page on their profile will help in securing online reputation management.

Bank of Baroda’s Social media policy framed for its employees makes it mandatory for its employees to positively comment on the product and services provided by the bank on social media forums. Further, it expressly prohibits its employees to make such a type of comment which adversely affects the status of the bank in the eyes of the general public and its potential consumers.

Dedicated team for diligent online reviews and responses

There must be an encouragement to the clients as well as the general public to write reviews and articles exploring the product and services offered by the company.  A review of the newly released product and services must be promptly made available to potential consumers. There must be a dedicated response team to reply to reviews written or comments made by the people in respect of the quality or quantity of the service offered by the company. The review may be positive or negative; it must be responded to as early as possible. If the need is felt one must be ready to apologise to the customers. Almost all brands working in the eCommerce sector such as Flipkart, Amazon, and Myntra have a dedicated team to reply diligently to any comment made against their services.

Conclusion

Business entities have to run with the time as time is running fast, the entity must have to chase such a time to survive in today’s competitive market strategies. At the same time, they must have to balance the conflicting interest among the consumers while replying to the comments or reviews posted online about the entity or its services. It will be financially injurious for the entity to support a particular group while answering the comment or reviews, therefore the replying strategy must have a balanced approach. Online reputation management is the need of the hour. The customer usually prefers to buy products online. They were also expressing their views about the treatment received by them on social platforms. Therefore, it is a matter of business backwardness if any brand or company is lagging in securing and maintaining its online reputation. By adopting the policies above-mentioned one can maintain the online reputation of one’s own business effectively.

References


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