Reputation Management is Not A Technique

Some truths are so obvious as to be hiding in plain sight. How to protect your online reputation is one of them.

This week, New York Magazine explores the world of “black” online reputation management, which is a fancy way of pushing negative search results out of the way by creating fake websites, links, and other online material constructed to outrank the bad stuff on Google. Graeme Wood tells a story of some powerful people and the organization they hired to attempt to manipulate search engine results. Sometimes it even works, for a while. Until you get caught. Often it never works at all. Always it’s very expensive. Reputation Management based on artificially changing Search Engine Results is almost always a losing proposition.

Unfortunately, the subjects of this piece did get caught, and their simple presence in this story will damage their reputation far more than the damage they were attempting to undo in the first place.

I’ve had more opportunity than many to reflect on reputation, the parts you can control and the parts you cannot. I’ve helped repair the reputation online of celebrities, prominent businesspeople, public servants, and others. Before I start with someone new, in every case, my client and I have “the talk” about reputation online. Here it is, in abridged form:

If you have been wronged, I will do my very best to fix that. If stories are reported that are untrue or clearly unfair, I will fight to have them removed or corrected. You have the right to be portrayed fairly, accurately, and honestly. That does not mean you get to control your reputation online, any more than you can control what people say to each other about you. Some people are rude, mean, or biased, and so are some websites. But when it comes to the facts, your reputation online will reflect who you really are.

If you try to “trick the Internet” into hiding or removing negative articles about you that are not untrue or patently and preponderantly unfair, the odds are against you. Google updates it’s code base three or four times a year, and a technique that works today may fail next month, or next year, when you are further advanced in your career, and the exposure of old hidden material is even more damaging than it is today. People who achieve prominence also attract opponents, and this is a fact of life. Any opponent who knows about your Achilles heel can use it against you and keep it online, while you chase after ever more unlikely solutions and are distracted from your work that initially brought you to prominence.

Don’t let one piece of information about you, no matter how humbling, control your life. There is another way to correct it. This method is honest, it is effective, and it will enhance your reputation affirmatively, not just clean it of negatives. It will make you more repsected tomorrow than you were before the negative material found it’s way to the internet.

To correct your reputation, simply live the life for which you wish to be known. Be a thought leader in your profession, and be a passionate volunteer as well. Be proud of what you accomplish in both of these arenas. We will help you get stories about these accomplishments written, and in time, you will become known for what you do, and your reputation will be defined by these stories. The negative material will lose it’s power, because it has been replaced by newer material that says other, better things about you.

This may seem naive, but it’s true. The people that do not forgive and forget were never your friend or fans anyways. What seems overwhelming today will be a bump in the road tomorrow, if you choose not to marinate in it.

When you follow this plan, old negative stories are replaced by more recent positive ones. And the content of the newer stories will far outweigh the old ones, to the people for whom it really matters.  You will have performed no tricks, broken no rules. You will have corrected your own reputation, and earned the new reputation you have.

With that in mind, read this recent Facebook post about the CEO of Delta, from a traveler:

An open letter to Delta CEO Richard Anderson:”

“Thursday was one of my more harrowing flying days. Due to weather, there were multiple delays, cancellations, re-routings and even a mechanical failure. A 2 hour flight turned into an entire day. By 9:30pm, I was just halfway home, waiting standby in DC hoping to make it out before the 10pm curfew.”

“During it all, I had contact with at least a dozen Delta employees – by phone, at the counter, at the gate, in the SkyClub… Without exception, they were all calm, kind, diligent, funny… and really went out of their way to try to help me. All this, while at the same time facing a firestorm of angry passengers because there had been so many disrupted flights.”

“I was 8th on the standby list, showing 0 seats left. I was about to give up, but the counter agent stopped me from leaving. He called 7 names… and then, finally, I was the last to be called. As we rushed down the jetway, the flight attendant at the plane shook her head – not a good sign – but then paused, talked to someone, and waved us down anyway. A vaguely familiar face met me at the doorway, not in uniform so probably an off-duty pilot I had seen before. He quickly grabbed my roll-aboard, helped clear a space in the overhead, and showed me to my seat.”

“It was important for me to get home – not important enough to tell anyone – but Friday I was to pick up my Type 1 Diabetic 12 year old from her diabetes summer camp. I’m sure she would have been fine if someone else had shown up in my place, but it’s a special moment for me. Camp Kudzu gives my daughter 5 days a year when she feels “normal.” Pick-up day gives me a glimpse into that special world where she’s just like everyone else, and she’s a little bit of a different person for the rest of the day. By the next day, it’s back to the harsh realities of managing a difficult, deadly, incurable disease that kills 1 in 20 before the age of 18. Most people just don’t understand how different it is from regular diabetes.”

“As the plane descended into Atlanta, the flight attendant announced that there was a special guest on board. He was riding in a jump seat, because he had given up his place to allow one more person on that flight. That special guest was you: Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta.”

“Suddenly I realized that “familiar face” was not an off-duty pilot. It was you, the CEO of Delta, vaguely familiar from the safety video. It was you, Richard Anderson, who gave up your seat for me. It was you, the Delta CEO, who helped me with my bag. It was you, acting just like an ordinary Mr. Anderson, who showed me to my seat.”

“You, Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta, did all that for me, just an average, middle-aged, woman with, as far as anyone at Delta knew, no special reason to get home. But more importantly, it was all of your employees that day that did so much helping me to get home – and now I know why. Because Delta is led by you, Richard Anderson, a dedicated and inspiring leader who so clearly demonstrates, at his very core, that he leads by example, and does not set himself above all those who allow this airline to exist.”

“Thank you, Richard Anderson. As a result of your leadership and the actions of yourself and your employees, I had my special day with my special child. You and your employees gave us both one more day of happiness, and for that, we are both very grateful. I have always been a loyal Delta customer, but Thursday solidified that loyalty for life! To all Delta employees who helped me on Thursday: thank you again.”

How will Richard Anderson’s reputation be evaluated?