Savvy Internet users can distort brand messages and their clever creations can get around the Web to thousands of viewers in minutes. This is the brave new world that companies must learn to live in. Since October 2006, Reputatio

nDefender has allowed individuals to track what is being said about them on the Internet. If they don’t like what they hear, they can ask the ReputationDefender team to remove offending items within certain limits (it is impossible to remove news items or government records). Now companies are knocking on the door.  ReputationDefender started out defending the little guy. CEO and founder Michael Fertik likes to say that his company helps victims of online smear campaigns defend themselves against their critics and that we are all potential clients. It might have started with jilted lovers and vindictive co-workers, but companies quickly became interested in ReputationDefender’s services.  “When companies try to get stuff removed from the Internet, it could get them attacked even more,” says Michael Fertik. But it is not stopping them. “We are getting calls from companies all the time.” As a result, Fertik started a new service which he does not advertise openly on his site. “Public figures and some executives started asking us to bury results on Google. A few companies are doing it for their products. We understand the maths of the search engine and we can make it look organic,” explains Michael Fertik. He will not discuss specific customers or reveal the size of his client base.  As Fertik knows, efforts to remove damaging data can backfire and could prove impossible as Digg found out when it tried to remove posts revealing the key to break the protection on HD-DVD discs. Users just kept posting the information again faster than Digg could take it down. To some extent, brands are having to live with users spoofing and changing their message. An article on DM News quoted the example of General Motors which launched an online ad contest only to see an environmentally-minded user take the opportunity to create and distribute an ad with the words “Global warming isn’t a pretty SUV ad. It’s a frightening reality.”  Another example was the storm back in March around an Apple “1984” ad spoof which portrayed Hillary Clinton as a Big Brother figure and Barak Obama as a new kind of politician. While the ad did not poke fun at Apple itself, the company must have had mixed feelings about it. After all, the spoof implied that the original ad was a powerful cultural icon and it featured an iPod. There is no such thing as bad publicity as popular wisdom goes. And if the information is slanderous, there are legal recourses. Isabelle Boucq for Atelier