New court documents indicate that the stem cell clinic Stemgenex was contemplating paying nearly $20K to try to get certain webpages that were critical of the company taken down. The documents include internal company emails that are part of the lawsuit against the firm. They indicate that Stemgenex was mulling over the idea of hiring a “reputation management” company, The Reputation Group, in 2016 to deal with critical web content.
For background, the suit itself alleges that Stemgenex engaged in improper marketing to make potential customers view past outcomes at the clinic as better than they actually were, a claim disputed by the business. The firm sells non-FDA approved stem cells for a variety of health conditions and for a time had seemed to suggest 100% customer satisfaction with the stem cell injections.
Turning Google against Stemgenex critics?
Remarkably, the potential target websites mentioned in the Stemgenex emails in the court exhibits publicly available on Pacer include those of our California state stem cell agency CIRM and a San Diego TV station that had reported on the clinic a few years back.
More broadly, for stem cell clinic firms their online reputations literally mean money in the bank as they seek more patient customers so they aren’t happy about negative things about them on the web. I’ve wondered over the years about the lengths to which some clinic firms might go to target critical websites.
In this case, the emails provide details of how the websites that had been critical of Stemgenex might be targeted. This kind of campaign can be designed to make Google incorrectly categorize the target sites as spammy or having other problematic issues. As a result, the sites in question may not show up well in search results or in a more extreme potential case mentioned in the emails they could be de-indexed entirely (effectively “disappeared” off the web since invisible to Google users). Stem cell clinics can also try to make critical websites rank lower on Google search results by generating bunches of new content of their own. Overall, this kind of stuff including in particular efforts at de-indexing, can be risky business as such campaigns can backfire on those paying to launch them with new bad PR or other repercussions.
One particular email included in Exhibit 33 between Stemgenex employees Jamie Schubert, Rita Alexander, and Candace Henderson, stood out to me and I’ve included a screenshot of it above. It mentioned me as someone (the “wrong person”) the company would not want to get wind of the questionable effort should they go forward with it. Also, at another point in the email the process mentioned for going after critics’ websites is described by Jamie of Stemgenex to her colleagues as “sometimes legal.”
You can read the emails and more yourself in a Pacer PDF document containing plaintiff’s Exhibits 32-36.
Amongst the URLs of websites listed by the firm in the court doc emails (see pages 63-64 of the PDF, also screenshot below) as critical of Stemgenex and it seems perhaps potentially worth taking action against were specific URLs from CIRM and the TV station, but also others including GlassDoor and a patient website just to cite two in the list. The exact meaning of this list and who generated it (The Reputation Group?), isn’t clear. Maybe they were just pointing out what negative content they found.
I also was unable to tell based on these court documents whether Stemgenex pulled the trigger on going after critical websites or decided not to do it. What’s the current status of the URLs listed?
The CIRM blog post on Stemgenex that the company apparently didn’t like and might have been targeted remains up now still. In contrast, as best as I can tell the URLs mentioning Stemgenex from Channel 10 San Diego are dead. Maybe the station just took them down on their own or something else happened? Strikingly, the website of The Reputation Group itself doesn’t seem to work or is not accessible to me at least.
There are many other interesting things in these court documents as well even just in the one Pacer PDF I linked to here, but I haven’t had time to go through it all let alone the hundreds of other pages of materials. Keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer and this blog post is based just on what is available on the Pacer website put there by the plaintiffs, who of course have their own case to try to make against Stemgenex. Finally, the overall case itself is pending so we don’t have a verdict on the allegations.
In the bigger picture, I think it’s likely that other clinics have considered going after critical websites and even perhaps gone through with it.