Like it or not, times have changed and  your carefully crafted band can be destroyed in a manner of minutes (think the Groupon SuperBowl disaster), leaving you in a digital wasteland.  A recent uproar in the real estate community has given us a lesson so picture-book perfect, you’d think it was crafted for a “How NOT to respond to an online disaster” class.  Sadly, it was not and the firm basically self imploded, not only by the initial issue which caused the meltdown, but by how they responded (actually not responded) afterward.

A brief history of The Lones Group misstep, before we go on to the lessons learned:

The Lones Group is a Branding/Marketing firm out of the state of Washington catering to the real estate industry.  Their clients are Realtors.  They have used zebra imagery for several years.  Daniel Rothamel is a real estate broker in Virginia.  His clients are home buyers and sellers.  He goes by the name “The Real Estate Zebra” and also uses zebra imagery in his branding.  Daniel speaks and blogs frequently to the real estate community on how to better their business, but he does not charge for this service, it is a Free service he gives out of the LOVE in his heart.  His core business is helping consumers buy and sell real estate in Virginia.

Last week, a well know real estate industry online news source, Inman, broke a story about a law suit filled by The Lones Group, against Rothamel and his brokerage, Strong Team Realtors, Inc., claiming that his use of the zebra imagery was confusing to their clients and was diverting business away from them.

Daniel is beloved by all who have met him and his social capital is  huge.  It did not take long before the real estate community (the potential clients of The Lones Group) lashed out in a fury of blog posts, twitter updates, facebook fan pages and more in opposition to the suit.  Within 48 hours, a Google search for “The Lones Group” turned up 5 pages of blog posts in defense of Rothamel.  Five of the top ten Google Page ONE results were pro-Rothamel and very harsh toward The Lones Group.  The damage The Lones Group’s online reputation was receiving was quickly becoming fatal.

The Online Reputation Management Lesson:

Had The Lones Group, once they saw the extent of the backlash growing, done something to stop it (say withdraw the suit and issue an apology) the situation would have settled down and the backlash would have stopped.  But they did not.  They kept silent and when they did respond, it was in the form of a scripted letter defending their position which you can read on TechSavvyAgent.com. The blog posts continued and even social media heavy weight Chris Brogan stepped in with his own post in support of Rothamel.

Why is this so damaging to The Lones Group?

1. They have infuriated and alienated their target client base, Realtors

2. They have exposed their lack of understanding of marketing and the importance of social capital in today’s world, a kiss of death for a firm who is supposed to be on the cutting edge of marketing and branding for the real estate industry

2. Their digital footprint was not large, so when the power of a group of opponents to their suit voiced their disdain, The Lones Group’s online presence was quickly overtaken by the negative press.  Next time a new potential client Googles them, what are they going to find? Dozens of very upset posts by their own fellow Realtors stating how The Lones Group (a branding and marketing provider to the real estate industry) has ruined their own brand, has caused ill will in the industry and does not understand social media.  Not great reviews for potential clients to be reading.

3. Even if The Lones Group now tries to “make good” with Rothamel, the damage is done.  The amount of online negative commentary can never be undone.  It will be nearly an insurmountable task for The Lones Group to reclaim Google page one (much less, pages 2, 3, 4 etc) for their own name.  The ghost of this digital meltdown will hang around for a very long time.

Online Reputation Take Away, curtesy of The Lones Group:

1. You don’t have to necessarily be involved or present online to be vastly impacted there.  Understand the power of social media, social capital and SEO and keep that in mind before proceeding with risky actions.  You might never recover.

2. If you do have an online apocolypse, seek to diffuse quickly.  Had The Lones Group done this, they might have a handful, rather than dozens, of blog posts and commentary to try and counter.  (Craig Agranoff has written a book on what do do should just such a situation occur)

3. Even if you feel you are right, realize the court of public opinion speaks louder and quicker and while you might win in court, you might loose in the end.  Be very conscious of how things are playing out and act quickly if it is not going in your favor.

Complete Disclosure:

1. I am not a lawyer and for all I know, The Lones Group might win in court

2. I am a friend and supporter of Daniel Rothamel

3. This posts is not intended state my opinion on the suit (which I feel is frivolous) but more importantly illustrate how to react to your own digital meltdown, if the need should arise

4. The views are expressed here are solely my own

More reading on The Lones Group’s epic online, self-inflicted, digital demise

The Lones Group v. Rothamel: A case study in destroying your on-line reputation by Jay Thompson
Denise Lones At The Lones Group: My Invitation To Fix Your mess by Justin McHood
Are Zebras Endangered by Chris Brogan
What We Can Learn From A Law Suit Inside The Real Estate Industry – Productivity Nugget #183 by Darin Persinger
Let my Zebra Go by Michael McClure
Case Study: The Lones group vs. Rothamel (Social Media Publicity Disaster) by Sze Liu
the Facebook Fanpage in Support of Rothamel
Lones Group sues Daniel, “Real Estate Zebra’ Rothamel by Matt Stigliano

the Twibbon Page to show your support of Rothamel

the paypal donation page to help Rothamel defend himself in court

Background image courtesy of HelenAdagmar

UPDATES and CONTINUATION OF #ZebraGate

Daniel offers a settlement (in true Gentleman Zebra Style)

Denise retaliates (video)

Rob Hahn write a brilliant post on how to deal with an internet mob

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric Johnson February 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

Great post! I agree 100%.

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szeliu February 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Great break down and point of views!
My recent post Case Study- The Lones Group vs Rothamel Social Media Publicity Disaster

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Carmen Brodeur March 3, 2011 at 12:30 am

This has blown up exponentially every day since the Inman post. I expect the Lones Group is hiding under some rock at this point. Google has a very long memory and the SERPS for "Lones Group" is mostly negative.
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janiecoffey March 4, 2011 at 10:03 am

It would be nice if she were, or at least quietly contacted Daniel to see if they could find a solution, but judging by the responses coming from Lones Group, she doesn't seem to be that type. I suspect, as others do, that the coverage has only made her strengthen her resolve and fed her flames of feeling the victim and justified in her suit. Time will tell, but the whole thing is not great, for anyone.
My recent post This is exactly WHY I love Daniel Rothamel- “The Real Estate Zebra”- so much! Video

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ReneeBurrows March 3, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I appreciate how people are still keeping this alive even though they are playing a victim role here. This is a bueno post Janie!

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janiecoffey March 4, 2011 at 10:05 am

I love the "victim role", just about what I expected. Sad, as mentioned above, I think it is going to only inflame, rather than dampen, her response.

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Jon Hardison March 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

I'd agree for the most part, but being in the business she's in, I've got to say, "This isn't over!"

The Lones Group is taking a measured risk here. I’m not a lawyer, but I am a marketer, and there’s one thing I know for sure. The Lones Group has already gained quite a bit from this. Before the case, they weren’t “known”. Today they are. The trick is to elicit an emotional reaction. Any emotional reaction. The Lones Group has done that.

Our course, right now, it’s a bad thing, kind of like when Eddie Murphy was caught sleeping with trans. folks of the night, or when Robert Downey Jr. was found face down in 6 lbs of coke (again). Sometimes you need to be willing to make a huge mess to get what you want. If you think about all this from a PR point of view, this is a wet dream:

A few weeks ago “no one had heard of The Lones Group”.
Today, if 1% of the Real Estate Pros, that are aware of The Lones Group, contracted with them for any service at all, they’d be doing very well. VERY well in fact.

Most people’s position is that The Lones Group is a big company that’s suing “the little guy”.
The reality is that The Lones Groups is a small company that is basically unknown, that’s suing someone that is very well known.

“I think” most people’s reactions are founded in the reactions of their peers, so when people like Jay Thompson, Inna Hardison (my wife) and other “players in the blogosphere” started discussing their disgust (which I agree with) with the situation, or changing their avatars to zebras, it’s easy to go along with it, but…

What exactly has The Lones Group done wrong? The answer is “probably nothing.” Will they win the case? Probably not. Will the defendant suffer as a result of the case? No. He will benefit, so what is the most likely outcome of this mess?

Put yourself in The Lones Group’s shoes for a second: Someone in a completely different market is using what you think is your brand. Not a big deal in and of itself, but you probably wouldn’t sit by and do nothing. You’d contact your attorney and have a few letters sent out to make them stop, no? I’m running long here, but the point is that The Lones Group is doing what I would hope anyone would do in this situation. Protect themselves! And spinning this into a positive for The Lones Group is something a 1st year MBA student could do in their sleep.

Mark my words. Based on everything that has happened to date, I’d call this “a classic”! 10% of the Realtors that have been so vocal about this horrible situation will have used or seriously considered using The Lones Group by this time next year.

I know it sounds crazy now, but this is how marketers and PR people work.

Disclaimer – Don’t agree with the case, not an attorney, in the same business as The Lones Group, bla bla bla… :)

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janiecoffey March 4, 2011 at 10:11 am

HI Ron, thank you for the thoughtful comment.

Regarding the suit, they might indeed win. I don't know, I don't know enough about trademark law to understand.

I think that she had an opportunity to reach out to the "mob" of popular opinion that rose up in support of Daniel, and come out smelling like roses, but chose not to. As you mentioned, it might have been a real PR/Marketing ploy for attention, in which case, she got it.

My hypothesis on how this came about was one (or more) of her clients saw that "The Real Estate Zebra" was speaking at the Inman Seattle Reboot and emailed or called her, thinking it was her. She was embarrassed that she was caught off guard and that her prime position as the Real Estate Zebra person in the NW corner of the US was called into question, and responded.

While I fully do understand her wanting to protect her trademark, were her business truly compromised, I do not understand either the suit or the response to the backlash against a suit. Let's just say, I would have handled the two things very differently.

the real sad thing for Daniel is the time and money going to be wasted in defense of this suit and the time distracting from his real business, which is helping buyers and sellers with their real estate business.

Thank you again for your thoughtful response.

My recent post This is exactly WHY I love Daniel Rothamel- “The Real Estate Zebra”- so much! Video

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