In an inter-connected world made possible by digital surveillance and social networking privacy is becoming a thing of the past.
And for companies who want to protect their reputations and brand image this can create problems which can affect their share price and market standing.
It’s not just so-called A-list personalities who risk being observed letting their hair down (and in some cases much more). A chance remark, or a slip of the tongue in an unguarded moment, can spell disaster. Think of Gerald Ratner’s comment about his jewellery “being crap” – that marked the end of his role, the company made big losses and had to change its name. Think of BP’s CEO Tony Hayward wishing he had his life back!
However help is at hand. According to a recent article in the Observer (1 August 2010): “Drunk again? Been behaving badly? Your image may need an online detox“, new companies are responding to the challenge. They offer to manage the “footprint” you create online. “Reputation Managers” claim they can clean up and shape your online history by burying the damaging stuff and promoting the good. The article says Kate Moss is rumoured to be using online brand reputation management to make sure Google searchers come to positive stories first. By contrast Mel Gibson has negative stories about his abusive rants in his top 5 results. Paris Hilton and Linsey Lohan are given as examples of people who might benefit from such a service by pushing their recent negative news items down the search results.
In America a company called Reputation Defender will help promote the positive and hide the negative and all for $15 a month. They will also alert you to any new references and for $30 you can subscribe to a service that will attempt to destroy hostile internet content. Other companies with names such as Online Reputation Manager, and Reputation Professor, offer similar services and one of the CEOs said they see themselves in an arms race against intrusive web developments.
The problem is people don’t realise how much information there is on them already on the internet all of which can be digitally stored forever. Some of this is because they use social networking sites or like Lohan Twitter their life away. This information is also used by marketers who learn your profile (just as loyalty cards do. Those coupons aren’t just sent at random or the same ones to everybody) and recruiters to check your background. So the less you put out there on the grid the less people can find out about you.
And in case you think these reputation managers are just internet savvy entrepreneurs think again. PR has moved with the times. The strap-line on that well-known friend of the stars Max Clifford ‘s website says; “… protecting and promoting a wide variety of clients…” (it’s interesting that he puts protection before promotion but apparently that is now 90% of his business) and it goes on to describe him as “Often poacher and gamekeeper at the same time, he has helped save many a famous career from media damage and destruction”. He has even described himself as providing the 4th emergency service.
I wondered if Naomi Campbell might be using such a service in the light of her recent appearance at the Hague so I checked her out on Google yesterday. As 75% of all clicks are on the first three links I looked at those. The first result is a Guardian story which says “agent told a pack of lies” and which covers the trial story including the allegations about Campbell, so not that positive despite the headline.. The second result from The Telegraph; “former agency threw blood diamond party” was no longer available, which was strange – or maybe not. The 3rd result from Hello: “(she) puts trial behind her as she parties in Sardinia” is the usual sycophantic stuff you expect I suppose. So mixed results there – assuming she might be using such a service. But as I was searching the Google site it was updating from Twitter accounts and these seemed more positive eg “Are we being to hard on Naomi” so it makes you wonder?
I checked back again today. The first result was a Mail online piece asking is she had finally met her match and comparing her “vile and abusive temper” with Charles Taylor’s habit of ripping out victims’ hearts and eating them. I’d say that was a negative story. Then it switched to a Reuters report that said she “had nothing to gain”, a more neutral story but that wasn’t up for long before the Mail story popped back into top place. The second result was another Mail online story about an Israeli model in a pink bikini – with lots of pictures – on holiday with Campbell. So a glamour story diverting attention away from the trial.
Then the 3rd result from PR Week confirmed what we probably all suspected. A PR company The Outside Organisation described their strategy for managing the media campaign including getting photos and video banned (out of respect for the court of course) and providing press packs and making themselves available for Q&A sessions after her appearance. They felt they got a broadly neutral coverage which they thought was a win in PR. PR Week wasn’t so sure and felt her reputation was still in the balance. They also printed the press release in full which was quite interesting if not the most grammatical of statements eg “Myself and Alan…”. And you’d have thought they might have got their “brilliant” lawyer to coach Campbell on her attitude in court and actually got her there on time.
But as the top North West PR and social media agency Smoking Gun PR points out: even David Cameron isn’t averse to putting his foot in it on occasions and might benefit from some reputation if not crisis management!
Updated 1 November 2010: Camelot Castle Hotel has become a battle of reviews on TripAdviser (195 rate it excellent and 146 as terrible). The owner, John Mappin (of Mappin and Webb jewellery) has called in an online reputation management company after scores of terrible reviews have appeared on TripAdviser. Mappin, a long-time scientologist who claims John Travolta and Tom Cruise amongst his friends, claims that business rivals and opponents of Scientology are behind them.
TripAdviser has responded by warning people that many hotels are hiring “reputation laundering” firms to write positive reviews and improve their on-line profile. It has even posted alerts in large red letters against some hotel entries where it suspects reviews may have been provided by someone with an interest in the property.
Updated 3 May 2011: In the midst of the suffering in Libya I wonder if some PR companies are having second thoughts about the work they have done for Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) promoted Gaddafi as a“fascinating contemporary world figure” and his son Saif as a “human rights champion”.
BLJ had offices in London, New York, and Tripoli and promoted the Gaddafi family through videos including his address to the LSE. US firms were involved as well: the Livingston Group and Monitor. Monitor has publicly acknowledge it might have got it wrong!
Updated 16 May 2011: On the back of the story about the Facebook slur campaign against Google The Times pointed out that it’s not the first time Burston-Marsteller had been involved in dodgy reputation management exercises. It was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, and by Argentina when it was accused of 30,000 disappearances. However when it advised Johnson and Johnson when some of its painkillers were laced with cyanide – it was seen as an outstanding example of how to do crisis management.
Updated 1 June 2011: According to the Times today celebrities and blue chip companies alike are hiring “reputation management” companies – the new social media savvy PR companies – to hide their secrets and boost their positive ratings on Google.
By setting up fake profiles on social networking sites and promoting positive stories they create extra web links and aim to drive up the ratings on Google so that bad news stories get pushed off the important 1st page of search results.
Companies such as Warlock Media, Kwikchex, and ReputationManagement.me, charge up to £10,000 a week for this service.
Updated 3 June 2011: The Times seems to be on a bit of a crusade with this topic adding hotels and authors to those who are using reputation managers. Apparently you can buy “followers” for social networking sites for as little as 24p and agencies are employing content writers to submit reviews and comments to sites like TripAdvisor, Amazon, and Mumsnet.
Amazon and TripAdvisor both state it’s against their rules to review if you have a financial interest and claim they have tools in place to spot this kind of fraud. TripAdvisor flags businesses that have been caught out doing this with a red badge to warn potential customers.