Counter-Striking a Dirty Tricks Campaign

13 March 2015

Some rivals will go to any lengths to undermine reputation, but when untruths are spread from behind the shield of a fake identity, the line is crossed into the realm of dirty tricks. 

Prominent individuals really can’t be too paranoid. In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in malicious and targeted attacks on client reputations. Unfortunately, the moment you sense your reputation is being manipulated is the moment the damage has been done. Unusual patterns of negative press, unexpected issues gaining public exposure, competitors stealing your thunder, are all part of doing business but are also clear indicators of deliberate reputational damage. Furthermore, when it comes to deliberate reputation damage, there’s no such thing as the usual suspects. It’s often those closest that have the most to gain so you’d be wrong to rule out associates, employees or friends.

One trick that we have seen used recently uses Wikipedia as a hub to create a negative story about an individual. In this instance, the perpetrator will start by researching all available online content in order to build a “mud pack” on the target. Companies House, the electoral register and the social media profiles of prominent individuals and their families are normally the first port of call, followed by a deep web search using sophisticated analytics tools. Chat rooms, for example, do not all feature in Google search results and can provide a treasure trove of juicy gossip and information that you might not even know exists and in which the perpetrator can strike up conversations, unanimously, with rivals, former employees and suppliers.

With their research complete, the perpetrator will then set about creating what appears to be authoritative third party content that is Wikipedia friendly.  A common trick is to place or pay for a story in a small but established newspaper, often local or trade publications overseas with an online presence.  Newspaper sites which are automatically collated into other news aggregators are a popular choice.

Another way is to create an anonymous blog in advance and populate it with connected uncontentious content which suddenly publishes an article or thought leadership piece with criticism of the individual. These sleeping “flogs” can be activated at the right time to drop the intended bombshell and are often accompanied by an attention grabbing automated online press release.  The favoured distributors are those that are picked up automatically by respected news aggregators such as Forbes. In a few relatively simple steps, the perpetrator has created three or four pieces of seemingly legitimate material with which to home in on his main target: the client’s Wikipedia page.

Because Wikipedia is all about sourcing information from ‘authoritative’ sources; if the content looks like it is legitimate then it has the potential to stick and propagate.  As Wikipedia often tops search engine rankings, the allegations can quickly become part of the client’s Google-able legend and jump out at anyone else with access to the web and a passing interest – including the mainstream press.

So how do you counter strike an attack like this? 

The best form of defence in this instance is pre-preparedness. Assessing your digital footprint before someone else does will help ensure that your private life remains private. The most thought the average person gives to their online footprint is setting their social media profiles to ‘private’ but for prominent individuals, the picture is far more complex. Only by understanding your own digital footprint and the footprints of those closest to you is it possible to regain control of your public profile.

From the Analogue Baby boomers to the Millennial Digital Natives, different generations typically face the same kind of threats to their privacy. Clients are often amazed at what we’re able to uncover courtesy of our digital privacy investigations. More often than not, the children of prominent individuals are inadvertently sharing personal and private family photographs via Facebook and Twitter, unbeknown to their parents. Two to three years down the line these images have a nasty habit of resurfacing in the national press and embarrassing the target at the most inconvenient time.

There are even been instances when we’ve been contacted by a client, in the process of moving house, because a newspaper has obtained photos of the interior of their home. Whilst we can help the client to assert their control by containing the threat and preventing the photos from being published, a cheaper and less stressful alternative is to take the pre-emptive steps to limit the chances of the photos being made available to the press in the first place – from putting in place proper agreements with the estate agent so that pictures of your home aren’t published via their website to ensuring that the copyright for the photos are owned by the home owner.

In short, when it comes to privacy, nothing is out of scope. From digital footprints to moving house, anything can open the door to scrutiny from prying eyes. That is why when it comes to a dirty tricks campaign it is imperative that prominent individuals get on the front foot by taking the pre-emptive steps to identify the threats and remove them.

Furthermore, a collaborative response from lawyers, PRs and digital forensics is crucial.  Thinking like a rival and conducting advance reverse due diligence to identify weakness (an open Facebook page, or rumours circulating on a chat room) is a good first step. Then, once the perpetrator decides to start creating their collateral, your combined team of advisors can swing into action with forensics personnel and lawyers working together to get behind the sleeping flog.

For example, using a photograph contained in the blog, digital experts may be able to uncover its meta data which can provide a goldmine of information to help identify who’s behind it. This in turn may provide the basis for further legal action but more often than not, the simple action of trying to unmask the perpetrator is often enough to deter them. By making their identity the focus of the story, you can cause their carefully laid trap to blow up in their face. Communications advisors should also prepare answers for difficult questions and start collating the evidence you’ve gathered to show that this is all part of a dirty tricks campaign.

Wikipedia needs to be handled sensitively and its internal processes must be followed when it comes to amending or removing content. Yet being able to demonstrate that sources of information have not been authoritatively sourced or are part of a dirty tricks campaign is usually persuasive and Wikipedia are willing to ban amenders when they misbehave or even freeze pages which become a battleground for edit wars.

As this Wikipedia example highlights, for rivals to damage your reputation they must first have access to your private information in order to use it against you. Ensuring what they demand is in short supply is therefore good reputation housekeeping. Prominent individuals can benefit from understanding how information flows throughout their family office. In doing so, processes and protocols can then be put in place to better protect their privacy.

It has never been easier for a rumour – even one without a leg to stand on – to find its way around, and now more than ever it’s important that prominent individuals take the pre-emptive steps to prepare for, then spot and counter strike a dirty tricks campaign as soon as possible.

This article was first published in Familia Magazine in February 2015.

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About the Author

Rod Christie-Miller

Chief Executive & Partner

Rod specialises in safeguarding the privacy and reputations of corporations, brands and public figures, particularly in the world of international business and politics.

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