Online reputation management has exploded into a robust business. Reputation management firms that safeguard and promote positive online reputations abound. Many promise to fix damaged reputations and replace negative articles with positive content at the top of search engine results. Some of the PR and SEO firms may not follow the most ethical practices.
A Wall Street Journal article describes how PR firm Status Labs allegedly used questionable practices to improve the reputation of hedge fund manager Jacob Gottlieb and other clients. Status Labs placed positive articles on websites to crowd out articles on Gottlieb’s past scandals that had dominated Google search and Google News results.
That’s a legitimate practice. But the websites where the articles appeared are fake, created to publish whitewashing articles and not real news. The published articles themselves are largely or partly inaccurate. In other words, the articles to refurbish reputation were “fake news” in the true sense of the word. Other Status Lab clients included former Bank of America Corp. executive Omeed Malik and disgraced blood-testing startup Theranos Inc.
After being contacted by the Journal, Google removed five websites from Google News for violating its policies on deceptive practices.
Co-founders of Status Labs also ran a company, Wiki-PR, which edited Wikipedia pages for clients without disclosure. Wikipedia banned the firm from working on its pages for violating its terms of service, according to the WSJ.
Is Google at Fault?
The WSJ takes issue with Google and faults its search results. However, verifying the veracity of the thousands of blogs and news sites on the internet is an impossible task even for Google. Limiting search results to only established, well-known media companies would destroy the internet’s wide-open nature and likely prompt charges of elitism and censorship.
While Google was never created to be a media watchdog, its popularity as a search engine practically ensures fake news and misinformation can proliferate on its platform, writes MediaPost Contributing Editor Rob Williams.
“That should worry anyone who is concerned about how propaganda efforts will shape the opinions of voters in next year’s election. As independent newspapers die off in this country, fake news is filling the void they leave behind.”
Many Seek Online Reputation Services
The WSJ implies that only the wealthiest 1% “scrub” their online reputations. But many far less affluent individuals, businesses, and other types of organizations turn to PR and SEO experts to repair damaged online reputations. Some are frustrated when negative news about them remains at the top of search results even after they’re exonerated of alleged crimes and have undertaken good deeds worthy of positive publicity.
The publicity gained from making a large donation to a higher education institution or non-profit organization often takes the top spot in search results for specific names, pushing down negative stories about the individual or organization. Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender, used this technique of making large contributions to well-known educational institutions and museums to gain favorable publicity and scrub his online reputation. Articles about his donations were published on the organizations’ highly rated websites and by recognized news sources, gaining higher rankings in search results than articles about his convictions. Ultimately, the façade collapsed as more of his victims came forward to charge him with additional sex offenses. His notoriety then overwhelmed his charitable gifts. Non-profits renounced and returned his donations.
Social Media Problems
Many innocent people and organizations have seen their reputations tarnished on social media. Customers with complaints, unethical competitors, disgruntled employees and short sellers, can attack reputations with false information — often as they hide behind anonymity or fake identities.
Desperate victims of social media attacks sometimes hire reputation management consultants who promise quick fixes — guaranteed.
Online reputation management experts warn that real reputation repair takes time. Those promising the snake oil of quick fixes employ “black hat” SEO techniques that provide only temporary benefits. In addition, such tricks backfire when unscrupulous players are exposed and suffer a Google blacklisting.
“Where reputation is concerned, patience is a virtue. Change doesn’t happen overnight, at least not good change,” advices Jon Goldberg, founder and chief reputation architect of Reputation Architects Inc., in an article for PRSA.
Steps for Legitimate Reputation Repair
SEO and PR experts recommend these steps for legitimate online reputation repair:
Remain calm. When maligned, people feel pressure to respond – to “do something.” But that urge can cloud judgement. Overreacting is the quickest way to draw attention to content that few people would see otherwise, Goldberg says. Sometimes remaining calm and doing nothing is the best strategy.
Employ social media monitoring and measurement. A media monitoring and measurement service can collect online mentions of a company and its products and gauge the effectiveness of reputation management efforts. Some services, such as Glean.info, can measure the overall sentiment by grading social media posts as positive, neutral or negative.
Respond to negative comments. Initiating friendly conversations, as opposed to confronting critics, and solving customer problems helps stop negative comments from spreading and bolsters reputations. Responding quickly is crucial. A media monitoring service can send automated email alerts when your company or its products are mentioned online.
Apologize when needed. Apologizing can rebuild reputations and restore trust. To be effective, an apology must be sincere, acknowledge the mistake, and make amends. Some companies go to great lengths to publicize their apologies through social media, owned media and even paid advertisements.
Get it off the web. If information is false and potentially libelous, you can contact the content creator or website manager and respectfully request them to correct the false information or take down the slanderous web page, blog post or video. If negative content becomes a liability and the creators do not cooperate, your organization may need to seek legal advice and resort to a legal takedown request. Once a website has taken down the content, you can ask Google to remove the page from its listings. Google will remove sensitive personal information and copyright violations even if website managers to do not take down the content.
Do good stuff. Making a substantial donation to a non-profit organization is not the only way to gain positive publicity that replaces negative stories in search results. PR advisors can create many different types of real do-good activities that attract positive publicity. Heart-warming activities for children almost always earn positive media mentions, often in top publications and on local television.
Promote positive content. Publish positive content about your organization on your website, social media channels, other websites through content marketing efforts, and media outlets through energetic media relations. By following good SEO practices, PR can push positive articles to the top of search results. Few people view negative articles on page 2 or 3 of search results.
Consider only white hat partners. Although competent, trustworthy reputation management services abound, some black-hat firms employ disreputable SEO tricks that can ultimately lower search results rankings. Unethical outfits frequently use spam bots to post fake comments, overuse keywords, censor or block all complaints, and create fake user profiles to provide favorable comments. Ethical PR, SEO and management reputation companies, by contrast, can obtain relevant mentions on third-party sites that rank highly in search engines.
Bottom Line: A strong online reputation is essential for business and individual success. PR and SEO firms can use different techniques to push positive content about clients to the top of search engine results. Some tactics are considered unethical and can backfire. A proactive, long-term PR and media relations plan with ongoing media monitoring and measurement is the most reliable path to a favorable online reputation.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.