Forget the Bong

Over the weekend, the inimitable Michael Arrington — he of TechCrunch fame — laid down the gauntlet to reputation minders everywhere via a blog post titled:

“Reputation Is Dead:
It’s Time To Overlook Our Indiscretions.”

The post, which Mr. Arrington tweeted and retweeted assiduously, asserted that the myriad anonymous opinions, spawned by social media, renders one’s ability to influence his or her online reputation “pointless.” He goes on to say that ultimately the public will grow immune to past indiscretions (e.g., the bong smoker pictured in his post). He writes:

“Trying to control, or even manage, your online reputation is becoming increasingly difficult. And much like the fight by big labels against the illegal sharing of music, it will soon become pointless to even try.”

From Yelp to Facebook to Twitter to a new startup that’s “effectively Yelp for people…”

“Today we have quick fire and semi or completely anonymous attacks on people, brands, businesses and just about everything else. And it is becoming increasingly findable on the search engines. Twitter, Yelp, Facebook, etc. are the new printing presses, and absolutely everyone, even the random wingnuts, have access.”

I certainly hope the new start-up he references is not, the current target of a massive boycott on Long Island following the suicide of a high school girl whose character was defiled through this anonymous social channel. I even noticed that Loic Lemeur — he of Seesmic and Le Web 2009 fame — was tooling with this insidious channel over weekend, and I felt compelled to draw his attention to the human tragedy it helped foment.

Still, Mr. Arrington’s right when he says:

“…it’s much harder to get that stuff off of services that exist to publish that information. Businesses freak out over a bad Yelp review but can do little to stop it. Imagine how you’ll feel when the top result for your name is a site that includes “reviews” of you by anonymous people who know you.”

I’m not convinced that learning to live with online unpleasantries is an acceptable solution. After all, as PR pros we are charged with dealing with just this kind of stuff. So rather than admit that the situation is helpless, what can we do to “manage” personal or client enterprise reputations in an age when dubious and indelible opinions have the capacity to proliferate rapidly online?

Musing on this meme, NY VC Fred Wilson directed eyeballs to one of his earlier posts titled “Own Your Online Brand” in which a group of MBA students extolled the virtues of active management of one’s online persona for enhancing job prospects. He cited David Karp:

“David’s point is that you can’t control what other people do (tag you in photos, post pictures you’d rather not see online, say awful things about you), but you can control what the Internet sees about you by overwhelming it with your social media presence.”

Mr. Wilson adds:

“I agree that controlling your online reputation is becoming increasingly difficult. But I do not think it is pointless. Reputation is everything and there is a way to fight back.”

I too am not willing to throw in the towel. Here are several points to consider for companies concerned about their online reputations (aren’t they all?):

  1. As Mr. Karp suggests, “overwhelm” the Internet with positive content that could trump any negativity that may exist. But wait, you say. This is not scalable at the enterprise level. In-house PR staffs simply do not have the bandwidth to overwhelm anything. If anything, they’re overwhelmed just trying to keep up with incessant information requests (and planning meetings).
  2. In addition to optimizing and expanding your company’s formal content, you now have a valid reason to convince management to unleash the power of the employee base. Most, after all, already are engaged with the social graph to varying degrees. Why not institutionalize that engagement, within agreed-upon guidelines, to build a stronger digital footprint with a more informed portrayal of the company? Doesn’t IBM have thousands of employees doing just that in its vertical circles?

  3. Secondly, ratchet up the monitoring and mining of online conversations. Consider utilizing premium tools from Radian6, Scout Labs, Invisible Technologies or Converseon to capture, analyze and serve up real-time sentiment. First, this function acts as a vital warning system for potential PR problems. Second, it helps identify potential detractors, as well as prospective brand evangelists to engage.
  4. Thirdly, and to the point of scalability, be more judicious about your company’s engagement strategy. While some consumer-facing companies insist on reaching out to literally every detractor, and are bolstering their “social CRM” staffs to do just that, some detractors merit more attention than others.

Mr. Arrington may be right when he says

“We’re going to be forced to adjust as a society. I firmly believe that we will simply become much more accepting of indiscretions over time.”

Now this may fly for individuals hoping that their past indiscretions will be muddled in the social media mire, but companies don’t have that luxury. The consequences — material and otherwise — are simply too great to hope that affronts to their reputations will eventually dissipate. For now, real-time monitoring and engagement strategies, within reason, remain valid.

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