Does your reputation online reflect who you really are?

By Eric W. Rose

Even the best organizations and the most admirable people have small moments or mistakes they aren’t very proud of and wish that they could erase. Most of us think of ourselves in holistic terms: we work hard to make a positive impact, and we assume that the small detours we sometimes take along this route will be no more than a footnote in our online story.

That assumption in the digital age is wrong.

The internet is a vast reservoir of content stored on countless websites around the world. These sites can be written and launched by anyone, as there is virtually no regulation. And that’s not even taking social media into account.

Today, when someone makes a small mistake that is documented; an off-color comment that can be recorded with a screen-shot; gets one customer complaint that is somehow magnified beyond its reasonable scope; or when one’s reputation is defamed on any of these countless, anonymous, disparate sites, the information is easily found via search engines. Damaging information or images, no matter how actually incidental to the overall image or life’s work of the individual or business, are only a few clicks away…and last forever.

There is no less forgiving god than the one we call technology.

The internet has changed the way that reputations are made and destroyed. As recently as 1998, before Google was created, if you wanted to research a person or a company, you’d have to visit the basement of a library or other institution that kept microfiche or microfilm of old newspapers. A lot of great investigative journalism and historical research has been done just that way over the years, but the work required painstaking effort. With today’s technology, which allows anyone to enter a few key search terms, you can instantaneously find out something (even by mistake!) that would have been difficult for a professional detective to find as recently as two decades ago.

More than that — journalists had editors, fact-checkers, and publishers. A story or picture that made it into most papers needed to have some semblance of truth. While we may have once thought the internet would keep the system honest by outsourcing reporting to every citizen, employee, and customer, we now see that the wild west has more outlaws and vigilantes (some of them not even human) than it has good Samaritans.

A Q3 2019 study from Five Blocks study showed that people use Google/ web searches as their first mode of research 44.1% of the time when deciding whether or not to do business with a certain company. This outpaces checking a company’s own website first (33.6%), its social media (13.6%), its Wikipedia page (4.7%), or other resources.

This means that a business with overall good results in real life can be plagued, overnight, by the online fallout from an unfounded rumor or a small error that makes its way onto Google page one, takes on monstrous proportions, and has stakeholders or potential clients panicking. Clearly, this type of crisis needs intervention because those online results, like some infections, can stick around for as long as you let them.

Repairing a damaged reputation is time-consuming and expensive. Under U.S. federal and most state laws, courts have routinely held that a plaintiff is entitled to recover costs incurred in performing various forms of damage control, when the actions must be taken in response to false statements, including those made online. Courts have found that plaintiffs in defamation cases — both spoken (slander) and written (libel) — can recover the costs of creating a reputation repair program.

Someone expressing a negative opinion, or even relating an embarrassing anecdote about a person or a company, is not the same as making a false and defamatory statement and can often not be handled legally, but nonetheless may require attention online.

The costs of cleaning up reputational damage on the internet are often very high. Due to the ever-changing search engine algorithms, damaging information can unexpectedly resurface in top search results. Most clean-up efforts, therefore, require proactive work as well as ongoing monitoring and maintenance to ensure that the harmed party’s reputation is restored permanently.

When examining a reputation repair strategy, we typically examine how far the harmful material has spread across the internet and social media, the required steps to clean up the damage, and what corrective actions and monitoring will be needed.

Here is some of our best advice, from the trenches:

Be the online you wish to see online. Think three times before you post anything on social media that someone can take out of context and ruin you with, should they be motivated to do so.
Focus proactively on your owned digital properties — your sites and social media — and keep them updated, true, interesting, relevant, valuable, and easy to find. The stronger your default online presence, the harder it will be for a temporary storm to knock it down.

Also, hot tip: Avoid using identical content on multiple sites (ie: the exact same blurb on your company About page and on LinkedIn) because it provides a less compelling experience for users, and Google will therefore discount and demote one of these properties.

Engage your customers online in a way that encourages those with good experiences to leave good reviews. Complainers are usually sufficiently motivated by their anger. Satisfied clients need to be more motivated by their satisfaction. This “true balance” requires effort on your part because of… human nature.
Work together with a PR and communications team, and with the digital reputation wellness experts they recommend, to tell your real story — hopefully in advance of a crisis. These specialists can make sure that the often-irrelevant negative result/s do not hijack the narrative.

To do this, they may use technical solutions such as wiki data and schema mark-up, which are like maps to help Google find what’s truly most pertinent to your overall story. This is especially helpful to help differentiate between you and someone with a similar name, for example.

Ideally, these digital experts will optimize all the various (not always obvious) platforms available to ensure that the best real content about you — including stories placed by the PR team — is promoted naturally.

Beware of digital reputation firms who tell you to fool Google by generating enormous amounts of content on a large number of sites, including publishing fake information. It will have limited success, and worse than that — it harms the reputation of our whole industry. How’s that for “meta”?

There is some good news: there are steps companies can take preemptively. The better prepared you are in advance, the more mindful of your holistic brand story, and the more resources you regularly devote to “balanced online health,” the less it will probably cost you to fix your reputation should the worst happen. You will also endure less aggravation in the real world, from problems spun in the anonymous corners of a virtual one.

Eric W. Rose is a nationally recognized crisis and reputation management expert and a partner at Englander Knabe & Allen.

ABC News