Monday, October 17, 2011

Doing Competitive Intelligence? Add Your Firm (and Your Name) to the List

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Among the research services I provide for my clients, I do a bit of competitive intelligence; that is, gathering (through legal and ethical means) information about my clients’ competitors, including information about their products, services, PR efforts, and the like. I keep track of several businesses on a regular basis to help my clients keep abreast of their competitors.

One of the companies I track on a daily basis is…my own business! It’s important to know if and how my name or the names of my business ventures appear online and in “the press,” including in blogs and via links from other websites. An item I heard on the radio the other day reminded me of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. I’m reprinting this posting from an older blog entry, in hopes that others may find it helpful.

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One morning as I reviewed my email and skimmed through the many alerts and news feeds that fill my "desk" each morning, I also checked the results of the routine monitoring I have set up for my name and my business names.

There was quite a shock waiting for me.

I was surprised to find that I had been quoted in an article that had been published on a major business information site. And I mean a major site – it’s a huge business resource that most U.S. business people and researchers use pretty often.

My surprise escalated into shock as I read the article. The author of the article wrote that she had contacted “ten top-notch safety professionals” to obtain recommendations in answer to a specific risk management question.

Not only had this writer never contacted me to obtain a quote, but she attributed specific words to me, located my business in the wrong city, and portrayed me as a safety professional, which I am not. While I do serve the safety profession with research and writing services, I do not have credentials or training of a safety professional, and I would never present myself as such. This would be comparable to a medical librarian presenting himself as a physician, or a technical librarian presenting herself as an engineer. It is, as my daughter says, bad form. (Not to mention illegal in most jurisdictions.)

Now, normally I would be delighted to be quoted as an “expert” in an article which appears on a prominent website and which is syndicated to several top news organizations, as this one was. But the inaccuracies in this article could actually damage my reputation among my risk management clientele, all of whom take integrity and professionalism seriously (as do I). Free PR is great, but only if it is correct and ethically done and only if it supports one’s business goals.

I contacted a staff editor at the business web site and explained the situation. I am sad to report that it took a fair amount of explaining to convince the editor that the writer had behaved improperly and that some action should be taken. The site’s managing editor told me that it is “hard to keep track of so many bloggers and freelancers." The editor's workload is not a sufficient or acceptable reason for allowing this writer's blatantly fabricated material to be presented as sound business advice. The editor is responsible for ensuring that the material posted on the site is fair, accurate, and legal, and in this case, he failed.

(Aside: The blatant fabrications in this information attributed to me made me wonder about the veracity of the other quotes in the article, and by extension, across the rest of the site. I now question the quality and utility of all the information on this well-known website, since I cannot trust the judgement and motivation of the editorial staff. I no longer use the site.)

Failing to get satisfaction from the web site editors and managers, I reluctantly called the writer (an independent freelancer) and expressed my concern and outrage. Politely. She confessed that in preparing the article in question, she had “recycled” (her word) an article that she had written five years earlier (!) in which she had also “quoted” me. When I confronted her on that, pointing our that she had never contacted me five years ago or at any time, she further confessed that she had, without obtaining my permission, taken my words from a signed posting I had made years ago to an online risk management discussion list (now defunct).

I had a few strong words for her about professional responsibility and her choice to forgo integrity and honesty in favor of cobbling together a quick article. (I spoke politely but with what my daughter calls “the icy daggers” in my voice.)

Ironically, this “writer” is an insurance professional who, one presumes, would understand and employ good risk management techniques. If she cannot practice sound risk management in her own work, what business does she have providing risk management advice to others? The simplicity of electronic “publishing” made it easy for her to set herself up as an "expert."

When I contacted the web editor again to express my continued frustration over the situation, he promised to remove the fabricated quote from the article and from the several places where it had been syndicated. He also promised to “speak to” the writer. He ought to have fired her.

Electronic technology makes it easy to “create” and “publish” almost anything. It's easy to steal content, give it a few tweaks, and re-publish it as your own work. It's just too tempting for lazy or dishonest people to fabricate, steal, and plagiarize other people's work, and to make money from it, to boot. The writer who stole my content was paid for the article. Did I receive any compensation? No. Normally, being cited as an expert in a prominent publication is compensation enough for supplying a good quote, but because she mangled it so severely, her "quoting" me may have done me more harm than good.

The real lesson here is that you must monitor your online reputation ― you must be aware of how your name and your business interests are represented online, and you must be prepared to take action.

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