Thursday, June 18, 2009

Managing Your Reputation Online - Part Two: Protect What You Can

In Part One of this series, I introduced the risks. Here, I want to provide a check-list for small business and nonprofit managers to use as a guide in their efforts to take preventive measures.

1. Register any TMs you want to keep. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has a good page of FAQs to help you determine what type of registration--if any--you need. For most registrations, you do not need an attorney. The PTO has an online Trademark Electronic Application System. For copyrights, no registration is necessary, but some people prefer to do so. The U.S. Copyright Office also has an online registration page.

2. Mark all Copyrights and Marks you claim. Use the "TM" for trademarks and "SM" for service marks for the ones you claim, whether or not you register them. Only after registration can you use the "®" symbol. Copyrights can be publicly proclaimed with a "copyright notice" much like you see in printed materials showing the symbol or word "copyright," the year of first publication and the owner's name (e.g., "©2009 Your Name").

3. Reserve all rights. Although the trademark, service mark and copyright "marks" plainly flag your intellectual property ("IP"), some holders go farther and add--especially on copyrights--words such as "all rights reserved." This tells the world that you have not waived any rights to your IP and want to be contacted for permission before use. It is not necessary and does not really have legal effect, but also does not hurt anything.

4. Provide a process for obtaining permissions and licenses. If you want to help others honor your IP rights and seek permission before using your IP, then avoid the common mistake of failing to provide a way for them to find and ask you. Post contact information in the material, for example. Photographers can register their artwork at sites like The point is to make it easy to find you so they can ask permission and give you a chance to grant it (with or without payment).

5. File for any patents you want. All the above information is NOT applicable to patents. Patent applications are, well, different. Though it is not required, it is highly advisable to seek legal assistance with any patent application or response to PTO questions or challenges. It also surprises people to find out that the information they submit to the PTO becomes public. That is because the very act of getting a patent is not to keep your secrets, but to keep your rights to the unique product or process.

6. Be Consistent with using and labeling your IP. If you have unregistered TMs, SMs or Copyrights, be sure to always tag them with those little symbols. Once per paragraph or page is enough, but always on any exterior text or artwork. You want everyone to know that you know your rights and are intent on protecting them.

7. Educate your staff. When do they use the TM or the ©? What do they do if someone outside your business asks to use the mark? What can be claimed as a SM? If you have to, bring in an IP lawyer to give a quick training class. Some will do it as part of their business development efforts (especially if you at least provide lunch) and others offer it to clients who use their services.

8. Register with third-party problem-solving organizations like the BBB and BBB Online. You can do everything right and still end up with a dispute that can damage your reputation. Register in advance and be prepared to use the alternative dispute resolution services if you cannot resolve the dispute with a letter or phone call. You are not in the business of litigating over customer or IP issues, so the faster you can resolve minor matters, the faster you can return to your primary mission.

9. Take all customer complaints seriously. These days, it takes very little for a disgruntled customer to proclaim to the world how sorry your product, staff or services are. They can email all their friends, post a very descriptive story on their FaceBook or other social media site or go global with a video diatribe on YouTube. In fact, while sitting on hold or standing in line, they can "Tweet their beef" to the entire world with only a cell phone.

10. Make sure you have good quality control systems. The best problem solving system is a problem prevention system. Take QC seriously and make sure your customers know it. Give them an EASY way to provide feedback and suggestions. Invite them into the dialogue with you on how to improve, then listen to what they have to say. It is much cheaper than cleaning up a mess after the fact.

11. Bolster your reputation with good testimonials BEFORE any bad ones arrive. This is even better than an “ounce of prevention.” Elicit quotable feedback and display the positive comments prominently. It builds your relationship with the quoted customer and helps others see that perhaps their dissatisfaction is not the norm. These must be honest and you must get permission prior to publication, but even customers who decline will be glad you asked.

My next segment in this series will cover monitoring your digital reputation.

No comments: