For several months, I’ve been fighting to expose the bad habits of a publishing company called Author Solutions. On August 31, I wrote a blog post about them that probably only would have reached a few hundred people, except the story was picked up by GalleyCat, Writer Beware, and The Atlantic Wire, and it was shared on Google+ by power user Guy Kawasaki.

With that kind of exposure, it was only a matter of hours before Author Solutions ended up in a bit of a pickle. The company was forced to make excuses for its actions and delete or alter a number of social media and article distribution accounts across the web created under the name Jared Silverstone. Jared was presented to the world as a real, live employee at Author Solutions. His job title? “Awesome Publishing Consultant.”

I won’t bore you with the full details of the affair here. But I do hope you’ll allow me a few moments to get a little preachy about what all of this means for you, as small business owners.

Simon already discussed how Chick-Fil-A’s mistakes should prompt us all to contemplate the lines we draw between personal conviction and business policy, but I want to draw your attention to another lesson that emerged for business owners following the initial uproar.

They Should Have Known Better

You probably remember that during an already tenuous time for Chick-Fil-A, the Abby Farle story emerged on Facebook. Chick-Fil-A was accused of creating a fake social media account to defend itself when another Facebook user pointed out that the Abby Farle account was created only hours earlier, and that Abby’s photo was actually a stock photo.

It seemed like everyone on the Internet was crying sham, and seeing those results, every company across the globe with similar accounts should have deleted their fakes en masse. Author Solutions wasn’t paying attention, I guess. In fact, Author Solutions committed a number of other social media sins. Don’t do these things, I beg you.

  1. They carelessly followed other users. Author Solutions circled me, a writer known for her extremely critical posts about Author Solutions, with a fake account using a stock image. They should have been able to anticipate that following a nemesis with a fake account would only end in tears, had they been paying attention.
  2. They auto-followed based on mentions or keywords. Or at least, that’s what I suspect. Because I mentioned Author Solutions on different social media accounts, I was presumed to be friendly and was followed without vetting. While there’s no rule that says a company can’t follow its critics, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the situation is potentially very volatile.
  3. They misled consumers. Pretending that Jared Silverstone was a real employee was a bad idea. I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that people don’t want to have to discern when a company is making stuff up to make an extra buck and when a company is being genuine. That means 100% transparency is required 100% of the time.

What Side of the Curtain Are You On?

Small businesses actually have an advantage over big corporations in the trust department. That’s because consumers know we don’t have unlimited cash reserves to buy back our reputations. So stay small, stay genuine, and remember: the only way to keep someone from pulling back the curtain on your own business is to do everything in front of it. That means if you’re employing your own Jared Silverstone — for the love of God — fire him.