Messy party photos, offensive tweets, pepper spraying student protesters … sometimes, you just want a do-over when it comes to your online presence. And for a hefty price tag, you can.
The University of California, Davis is under fire for contracting consultants for at least $175,000 to clean up its online reputation after a November 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee. If that PR campaign worked at all, it’s now backfired. Here’s how this sort of reputation scrubbing is supposed to help—and some ways in which it might have the opposite effect.
CALL THE PROS
Services such as Reputationdefender.com and Naymz.com offer to clean up your name, or, as the latter advertises, achieve your “professional and personal aspirations.” A company called ICMediaDirect advertises reputation control for $6,300, in which the service will try to “push down” your undesirable search results by populating Google with friendly links instead. These companies didn’t return messages seeking information about their services.
Instead of lawsuits, for example, the companies promise that search results will turn up your LinkedIn profile, business website or other sites that portray you in a more positive light. Of course, there’s no guarantee any of this will work; it’s awfully hard to delete anything permanently from the Internet.
OR JUST ASK, IF YOU’RE CONTINENTAL
If you happen to be in Europe, you can also exercise your “right to be forgotten.” This entails filling out a form that asks search engines like Google to remove certain links when people look up your name. Of course, this means nothing if someone Googles you in the U.S.
SOME THINGS JUST DON’T ERASE
Just ask Justine Sacco, the former IAC media relations representative who lost her job after an unfortunate tweet—one widely seen as racist, although Sacco said she was aiming for irony—raised the hackles of the Twitterverse. Three years later, the incident still turns up first when you search for her name on Google.
You also have to consider the possible blowback when and if your cleanup attempts see the light of day. That’s the pickle UC Davis is in now. Some California legislators have called for the resignation of university chancellor Linda Katehi, who approved the PR campaign.
GET OLD-FASHIONED, IF YOU HAVE CLOUT
For companies and public figures like celebrities and politicians, putting a positive spin on the negative can be as simple—or as complicated—as getting a friendly story in the news. Being proactive is key.
Terry Corbell, a business performance consultant, recommends “shameless self-promotion” as a way to build a positive online reputation before disasters happen. Be active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you have a strong reputation to begin with, it’s easier to deal with the bad stuff if and when it happens. And if it does?
“If an organization is at fault, they need to come clean,” he says. “First is admission of guilt.” Katehi did apologize for the original pepper spraying—but so far hasn’t followed suit in the current controversy.