Yelp's bad press lesson: Squash the allegation, not the reporter

There are valuable business lessons about bad press that I hope Yelp is taking away this week, following a pretty scathing (and really long) report that accuses the popular reviews site of manipulating reviews for money.The first thing you should know is that the report appeared in the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly based just outside of Berkeley (do you know anything about Berkeley?

There are valuable business lessons about bad press that I hope Yelp is taking away this week, following a pretty scathing (and really long) report that accuses the popular reviews site of manipulating reviews for money.

The first thing you should know is that the report appeared in the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly based just outside of Berkeley (do you know anything about Berkeley?). There's a lot of anonymous sources. It uses leading words - "creepy," "paranoid," "shady" - and is clearly written with a bias tone. It doesn't make it OK, but it is what it is. I wasn't expecting New York Times or Washington Post style journalism here.

As expected, Yelp responded to the story with a post from CEO Jeremy Stoppleman on its corporate blog. Normally, I would share an excerpt from his post with you here. But, in all honesty, he really didn't say anything worth sharing. He didn't address the allegations head-on, other than to deny them. He didn't offer an explanation as to why the allegations could be wrong. He didn't mention anything about the algorithm that's used to shuffle reviews on the listings pages. Instead, he relied on a single screen-grab of an advertiser whose Yelp listing included a negative review.

And then he went on the attack, going to great lengths to discredit the author, the reporting, the sourcing for that piece. He even quoted the American Journalism Review about the use of anonymous sources.

It's fine to be upset about a bad piece of journalism and definitely OK to respond to allegations in a public forum - that's the beauty of today's blogosphere. But, as the CEO of a company that's gaining more and more attention (I see the name at Apple stores and on Blackberry commercials), it probably would have been better to break down the allegations instead of breaking down the reporter's use of sources.

I'm not asking you to share the company's secret sauce. But offer some insight into the algorithms and the technologies that shuffle the reviews on those pages. Show me - beyond a screen grab - how these allegations are impossible. Tell me that there's some sort of checks and balances system that keeps sales and content teams at arm's length from each other - or at least be transparent about how those partnerships work. Or fess up and say the system is flawed and that you're fixing it.

Here's are the lessons that should be taken away from this encounter:

No. 1: Don't engage in a war with the press. In the long run, you won't win. Remember: the press is viewed as "the people" and this particular report - no matter what you think of it - falls under the umbrella of watchdog journalism, something that's watching out for "the people." (Again, Berkeley.) Fighting the press, in this case, comes across as a fight against "the people," the same "people" you want on your site.

No. 2: Don't shift the attention away from the allegation. When the dust of the he-said-she-said settles and readers move on to the next scandal, the allegation will still be there - and it will still be unanswered. Someday, that could come back to haunt the company. If this pot ever gets stirred again, this unanswered allegation will definitely surface again. Don't believe me? Refer back to Lesson No. 1