I have to believe even legendary huckster P.T. Barnum would be appalled by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s announcement today that 19 firms would be fined $350,000 for posting completely bogus reviews on such social media sites as Yelp and Facebook.
The businesses that posted the ersatz four or five-star ratings about themselves ranged from restaurants and dental clinics to bus companies and adult entertainment clubs. But what truly mortifies this reputation management professional is that several of the Nasty 19 included reputation management firms such as Main Street Host.
According to reports, Main Street Host was paid to create glowing reviews about their clients, post them on various social media sites and then "migrate" them, as we marketing types like to say, to the client web site itself!
So, what's worse: a teeth-whitening service that posts false claims about brightening a patient's choppers or the reputation management firm that tells the white lie? I'd opt for the latter.
The Scarlet Letter should be applied.
I'd suggest a fine isn't nearly harsh enough for reputation management firms that are paid to lie on behalf of others. I'd suggest A.G. Schneiderman borrow a page from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and insist that each reputation management firm caught lying be forced to print a Scarlet Letter on its home page. In this instance, though, the A would stand for "Avoid at all costs."
Let me be clear about bottom-feeders such as Main Street Host. Every industry has a sleaze factor (think ambulance-chasing lawyers). In fact, I wouldn't even consider MSH a competitor. They're the call girls of communications.
That said, the businesses caught using reputation management firms to create fake reviews will suffer serious damage. They will lose business. But Americans have short memories and, sadly, there's a sucker born every moment.
Think before you act.
The best thing an entrepreneur can do is weigh the short-term gain a fraudulent five-star rating can provide with the long-term legal, financial, and reputational ramifications it most assuredly will cause.
I've learned time and again that an image and reputation can take years, if not decades, to build but only a nanosecond to destroy. (Remember BP?) Knowing that, why would any small business owner take the risk of hiring a shyster to wax poetic about a lackluster product or service?
Most successful entrepreneurs have failed multiple times before finally grasping the brass ring. Lying may put a few extra bucks in the cash register today, but if a pit bull attorney general like Schneiderman should detect your fraud, you can kiss any future success good-bye.
Fake reviews on Citysearch and Yahoo may remain in the blogosphere forever, but I guarantee the negative publicity generated by a state attorney general's fine will be at the very top of ANY search of your name (now, and forever more).
And, as the attorney general himself might say, "Case closed."