Twice this week, I’ve found myself talking to people who discovered that their online reputation had taken a sudden hit, and it reminded me once again that periodic online reputation checks are just as important for brands, companies, and individuals as regular maintenance is for cars.
Three years ago, I started doing an annual review of my online reputation. That was about six months after my reputation got trashed when I unknowingly and unintentionally got between two companies involved in a flame war. In the six months between the time I discovered the problem, and the end of the year, I’d worked pretty hard (without much success, to be honest) at building a new reputation for myself and moving the negative comments down on the search results.
I was hardly an Internet novice in 2008 when my problem first cropped up. In fact, at that point I’d been involved in the online world for about 25 years, starting with CompuServe and MCI mail in the early 1980’s, and moving to the fledgling Internet in the 90’s. In all those years, I’d learned a lot about what it takes to have your say online without winding up with legal or reputation problems, and I thought I was doing pretty well. Before August, 2008, if you searched for my name you’d find it only in SEC filings when I sold stock in companies where I was considered an “insider”, on press releases I wrote for clients, and when I was a speaker at a conference or trade show. I’d been quoted a few times in articles about clients or events, and I’d written magazine articles and books that were indexed by the search engine, but aside from my LinkedIn profile, there wasn’t much to see — exactly what I wanted because I’ve always felt that when your job is to market someone else’s products or services, it’s a mistake to let the spotlight fall to much on the person doing the promoting instead of what’s being promoted.
This week I completed my own annual review with the same disappointing results I got last year: namely that one of the negative articles from 2008 still turns up near the top of Google search results despite more than a year of additional positive results which fall below it. And I talked to two people who were going through the same reputation crisis I’d encountered back then.
The first was a young woman whose LinkedIn photo showed her in a college cap and gown, posted this question to the Social Media for the Blogger group: Why do people attack people when they blog or write about a relevant conversation? I know you can’t please everyone but, have you experienced personal attacks?
The second was someone at work who ran into one of the Internet trolls out there who have more time than good sense, and spend their days and nights taking offense — and lashing out — at anyone who dares to express even the mildest disagreement with the troll’s opinion on anything. I was able to help the second one more than the first, but it reminded me once again how critical it is to be careful what you say because you just never know who’s listening or how they will react.
The truth is that most of the people you meet online are normal. But there are people out there who use the semi-anonymity of the Internet as an excuse to say and do things that (one hopes) they’d never do face-to-face. Most of them seem to have all the time in the world to post replies, escalate flame wars, and swoop in with nasty comments 24/7. (Don’t they work for a living?) And then there are the truly scary ones out there who just like to intimidate, threaten and harass others.
Several people have told me that’s what I ran into back in 2008, but as I’ve never met the person who attacked me online, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But maybe my story will help you in case you face the same situation, so here it is.
In late July 2008, I was getting ready for the last leg of my planned “trip around the world” — visits to all 7 continents we’d been taking in 8-12 week blocks for just over 4 years. I attended a networking event where a “friend” talked about something that I thought was funny, and I followed up the next day by sending him a thank-you note for the conversation and a copy of a document I thought he’d enjoy. In my email I said something like, “Isn’t it funny how so-and-so always bashes such-and-such, when they both use the same list of 10 tips for great presentations?”
Then I got on a plane for New Zealand and Antarctica, happily leaving my cell phone and laptop at home. While I was gone, my “friend” decided to take a poke at so-and-so by reposting excerpts from my email as a claim of plagiarism (which I never made) between two companies (which I didn’t know) were then conducting a war of words in various online forums as they battled for market share.
I got back 8 weeks later to an inbox, office mail box, and voice mail (work and home) overflowing with threatening letters from “so and so” and his lawyers, phone calls from people I hadn’t seen or heard from in years warning me about the hornet’s nest I’d walked into, and two pages of Google search results filled with rants about what a worthless coward I was for making unfounded accusations and then not responding to calls to prove my case.
Of course, I’d made no accusation – and I never intended to get drawn into any sort of public debate with someone I’d never met and knew nothing about except that he didn’t like someone else I knew. But a careless email had painted a target on my back, and defending my actions was out of the question by the time I found out someone was taking pot shots at me.
Had I been at home, things might have turned out the same way. Oh, I’d have had my lawyers respond, and I’d have quickly apologized and attempted to defuse the situation. But I’m not sure it would have helped. The rancor in the messages make me believe that the other party wasn’t interested in anything other than shouting down an accusation that I hadn’t made.
Since then, I’ve had to explain the remaining damage to my reputation to potential employers, venture capitalists, co-workers, and a judge and Child Protective Services when we became foster grandparents to our 10-year-old.
On the upside, it got me to write a book on the subject, and it convinced me to work on my public image, social media reach, and SEO in a way I’d never been interested in doing before. The result is a lot of amazing contacts and information I certainly wish I’d had when my problem first surfaced.
Today I know a lot more about dealing with trolls now than I ever wanted to know. The best advice I can give is to avoid getting into situations where you run afoul of them if you can. That means that you’ll seldom see me post anything online other than compliments or positive comments – the exception is my personal Facebook page, where I occasionally rant about something or someone while being careful not to cross any of the legal lines.
Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid being victimized by an online attack on your reputation. The helpless, devastating feelings that come with these kinds of attacks are hard to overestimate. It’s nearly impossible to completely repair damaged online reputations legally or through positive PR — although there are a number of legal and PR/SEO/reputation management activities that help.
A distant relative of mine learned this lesson all too painfully last year. She ran a highly regarded day care center in a small Texas town for nearly 30 years and was going through a particularly nasty divorce from her college sweetheart after 40 years.
While she stayed home and managed the family farm and two businesses (her day care and his rare plant and seed-stock business), and cared for his aging parents and the couple’s children, many of the 3 and 4 week buying and research trips he took to Europe, Asia and South America weren’t exactly solo.
He’d had a mistress for at least 20 years, and probably longer although the records that might prove it are long gone. She found out when an accountant reviewing his business records for an IRS audit mentioned casually that “one of the problems is all the trips you went on with your husband — he shouldn’t have deducted the cost of your travel, just his, since you’re not an employee of his company.”
He had no idea that she’d never been to any of the places that the records showed charges for spa treatments, hair stylist visits, two airline tickets and one room with a king-size bed. I can only imagine the pain, surprise, grief, and anger that followed, but I know that it devastated my cousin and her family.
I won’t spill the rest of the details of the nasty divorce that ensued. In the end, because of her husband’s “marital misconduct” she and the children were awarded “the majority of the marital estate” which includes thousands of acres of farm and ranch land which had been in his family for over 150 years, along with the mineral rights on that land
That’s when the attacks started. First, there was a negative review of the day care center on Yelp, followed by several more. Before long, there were comments in letters to the editor in the local newspaper that implied that there was a lack of supervision for kids in the after school program, and ultimately to a “save our kids” blog that accused her of being a “money-grubbing idiot who was too stupid to take care of herself, let along other people’s children,” and laid out the entire sordid mess of the divorce proceedings in excruciating detail, along with some rather inventive stories that anyone who knew her even slightly might have laughed at in another context.
She talked to an attorney who said that there was nothing he could do unless they could somehow prove that her husband was behind the attacks — but that isn’t likely. For one thing, the ex is a 66-year-old farmer from East Texas. He’s smart, but social media isn’t exactly his native turf. He swears that he didn’t do it, and I believe him if only because the language used is so unlike his normal speech patterns.
I was able to get the local newspaper to run an article that used the malicious, untrue “letter to the editor” as an example of its new policy on verifying the identify of letter writers before publishing it, and we used her experience as the example for a workshop at the local chamber of commerce on what small businesses need to know about online reputation management. Yelp won’t take down the negative reviews from anonymous posters, and we don’t know who posted them.
Luckily, she’s financially secure and ready to retire, and has plans on doing some travel of her own. The anonymous blogger turned out to be a cousin of her husband’s who was angry that “family land” was going to an “outsider”. We tracked him down through a tortious interference lawsuit that compelled the blogging service and ISP to provide registration information, and the court ordered the offending posts removed.
Still, the day care business is closing at the end of the year. There’s just no way to continue operating because anyone who does an online search for the center’s name is going to come up with the negative Yelp reviews, old newspaper articles and false blog posts at the top of the first page of search. The posts may appear in Google’s cache for months, even though the source documents are gone, and since Yelp won’t remove the negative comments, who knows how long they’ll remain there?
When it comes to their kids, most parents (rightly) simply won’t risk using a day care center with even a hint of suspicion attached. For the last year, the day care center that had a waiting list for most of its history has been half empty, and it will soon close for the last time.
All of that leads me (at last) back to the point of this post. Have you done your year-end online reputation check-up? If not, put it on your list of things to do sooner rather than later. Check out American Express’s list of steps to take periodically to manage your online reputation.
And if you want read more of what I’ve written on this subject, here are some links I hope you find useful and interesting.
—Managing Your Online Reputation: The Basics (Just what it says: the very basic things anyone needs to know to manage a business, professional, or personal reputation online.)
—Please Don’t Feed The Trolls (Avoiding the lunatic fringe of social media users who enjoy attacking anyone who seems vulnerable.)
—Go Google Yourself! (My own experience with an Internet troll.)
—When The Truth Isn’t Enough: Online Review Lawsuits (Having your say online without losing your shirt may depend on HOW you say what you want to say…so think before you post.)
—When Pedophiles and Search Engines Collide (A true story of a man who discovered he shared a name with a pedophile only after he lost jobs and contracts — and what lengths he went to in order to separate himself from the prison inmate who ruined his reputation.)