There has been a lot of talk lately about how the Web can “ruin reputations with impunity,” as if the Web itself was a dark force that wants nothing more than to breakup marriages and destroy careers. An example of this alarmism was seen in this week’s SFChronicle article “Web can ruin reputation with a stroke of a key” by Anna Badkhen. The article describes the tribulations of Sue Scheff who was viciously defamed by a disgruntled client in online forums, culminating in a jury award against the client for nearly $12 million. Scheff’s case aside, it is terribly misguided to blame the Internet for the occasional observance of character assassination.
It’s helpful to remember that destroying the reputations of others has long been a popular blood sport. In the 18th century, for instance, Thomas Jefferson funded hack journalist James Callendar to smear his political enemies by publishing scandalous accusations–and Callendar later turned the tables by libeling Jefferson with the Sally Hemmings affair.
Still, there seems to be something qualitatively different about the nature of reputation online, and something tricky about preserving it.
One company, ReputationDefender, is basing their entire business around this idea. The Chronicle quotes their co-founder as seeing “online smear campaigns” everywhere:
“It is happening … on more or less every Web site where people can create content…From underage people, to university people, to graduate school people, to older people, to people who are being targeted by exes, to people who are being targeted by ex-business partners, colleagues at work.”
ReputationDefender’s service includes a reputation monitoring service, and as they put it, “if we find an item of online content you don’t like, we’ll carry out our proprietary DESTROY process for you on that item.” This reminds me of those “credit doctors” that claim they can zap negative items from credit reports. Sure this might be useful if there’s something bogus and destructive posted against you, but it’s not a strategy for developing a positive reputation, or even offsetting unflattering content. As we’ve seen, the “search and destroy” approach to “protecting” reputation is dicey at best. Besides being difficult to pull off, used broadly it can have a chilling effect on the very free speech that makes the Web useful. Oh, and then there’s the Streisand Effect.
I’d like to propose a different approach. Like cultivating a good credit record, building reputation is done steadily, over time. We need to embrace the messiness of social interactions online that we expect here in the real world, while adapting to its sometimes loony terrain. The first thing to do is reject the notion of online reputation as being a linear score– i.e. how eBay does it with its five star system (an aproach known for being gameable). Reputation in the real world is a mosaic of strengths and weaknesses, an interweave of stories, relationships and work product. We don’t expect flawlessness of people or organizations. That’s why every recruiter’s favorite question is “what is your greatest weakness?”; a non-answer is the only wrong answer.
With this in mind, here are five ways to cultivate reputation online.
1. Cast a long shadow
Often a single cruel review, blog post or forum thread can achieve a crushing visibility in search results. This is a rude awakening for many who don’t already have much of a presence online. Those ten links on the first Google results page can make or break reputations, and it’s negligent to relinquish this control entirely to the fates. With a tweezerful of effort you can exert a big influence on your search results.
The answer to creating a productive reputation lies in increasing online visibility, not minimizing it as some privacy advocates suggest. The answer is to create a bigger Web footprint for yourself, be verbose and connect promiscuously. Dish out meaningful content, ideally on numerous sites, and link to it. You’ll push any unflattering stuff off the front page, or at least dramatically dilute its impact.
For all the talk of Sue Scheff’s massive jury verdict, her online reputation was improved most visibly by her frequent postings to third-party blogs and her press coverage (which she links to from her eponymous Web site to increase their search value).
To quote Clive Thompson in the See-through CEO (Wired, 15.04):
“One bad blog post can kill you. But if you’ve got hundreds or thousands of sites linking to you and commenting on you, the law of averages takes over, and odds are the opinion will be accurate: The cranks will be outweighed by cooler heads…The Net rewards the transparent.”
2. Tell your side of the story
It’s amazing how often people let spurious charges go unanswered in a public forum. It seems that most people and organizations have two modes online, silent or litigious. There’s another approach: responsiveness. The trick is to not respond in a reactionary style, which can create a destructive blowback effect, but rather in the measured and calming tone of someone who is better informed. Your job is to correct facts, provide the missing context, clarify the intentions. It’s important to respond immediately, of course, before the hit piece sinks in. But again, more than anything you must demonstrate more reason and calm than your critics. Bonus points for being sympathetic to the “misunderstanding” that led to the overblown attack. It may not be as cathartic as unleashing your anger upon them, but it wins over the casual observer every time.
Barak Obama observed this approach in January when a conservative magazine (and then Fox News) accused him of having been educated in a madrassah, a radial islamic school. This turned out to be untrue, but Obama responded while maintaining the high ground:
“I think they recognize that the notion that me going to school in Indonesia for two years at a public school there at the age of 7 and 8 is probably not going to be endangering in some way the people of America,” Obama said on NBC’s “Today” show…The push-back was a signal Obama would fight to protect his reputation in the presidential campaign.
The untruth was handily dispatched and has not dogged him sense, thanks in part to his direct and measured response.
3. Give a heartfelt apology
This is the most obvious point here, but it may be the hardest to observe for many people. If you’ve done something that upset someone else then the absolute best way to defuse the situation, and actually enhance your reputation, is a strong dose of humility and a sincere apology. I’ve written about this a lot on this blog, but it bears repeating.
It’s a truism in business that a problem handled well does more to create a satisfied customer than if there is no problem at all. The same may be true of personal reputation. Witness Richard Edelman, whose PR agency was caught creating “flogs” for WalMart:
He apologized on his own blog, apologized some more, and began posting his own responses on blogs that were attacking him. He was wildly promiscuous, personally putting the message out anywhere he could, in what became a largely successful attempt to swamp the Google bots and prevent the critique from metastasizing. (The See-Through CEO)
4. Assemble an army
When you’re being picked on by others one of the best outcomes is that your admirers come to your defense. That’s exactly what happened to Draper Richards venture capitalist Howard Hartenbaum this week. On TheFunded.com, a site designed for entrepreneurs to rate and review venture capitalists, Hartenbaum was brutally critiqued by two founders whose idea he didn’t fund. Numerous fans of his tried to jump to his defense but were turned away with the site claiming they were trying to defend against the gaming of the system. Only after Hartenbaum’s murmur of support became a roar on other sites like VentureBeat did TheFunded relent and allow his defenders to have a voice on its site.
The point is that Hartenbaum’s army not only came to his defense, they rallied as a vocal group to change another site’s policy on his behalf. He wouldn’t have been able to do this alone, but his army gave his reputation a double-shot of resilience–a direct counter to the critics and an impressive show of force.
5. Stand for something
Reputation isn’t about being perfect, or about living up to any pre-existing measure. I’d argue that more than anything it’s about embodying a clear mission, a distinct talent or focus. It’s about showing sustained commitment to an organizing principle over time. An eBay powerseller might reply that reliability and honesty are universal attributes of reputation, and this is true. But without a mission or a higher purpose those elements don’t add up to much. With a commitment to excellence in a core area, though, people will cut you a lot of slack elsewhere.
Tara Hunt, for example, started blogging about her passion for community marketing a few years ago, and has since made a name for herself as an advocate for customers. She’s tireless and focused in her efforts. Though she sometimes ruffles feathers with her candor, she is now an internationally sought after speaker and has a book deal in the works. Her clear sense of purpose has helped inoculate her against the petty lashings of her critics. It doesn’t hurt that she retains her humility through it all.
People are typically generous towards others who demonstrate a willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and even fail. On the other hand, a history of poor character is not so easily forgotten. There’s justice in this structure. Good people get the slack they deserve, while the the bad guys are cooked in their own juices.
It’s true that these five points in principle aren’t much different than the sort of things we do to build reputation offline. That’s the point, after all. All we’re really doing is wrapping up our age-old human foibles in HTML.