A while back, I was startled to see myself criticized harshly on an online IT forum. One poster called me “clearly incompetent” and demanded that I be fired. It was a chilling feeling, especially since I didn’t know any of my antagonists.
Of course, it wasn’t about me. I share a name with a former public information officer for a Midwest school system. From what I pieced together, an IT security breach of some kind triggered some fallout for which my namesake was blamed. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her fault.)
Given our different geographies and occupations, my reputation risk from the nasty comments was minimal. But, it was an unpleasant and creepy taste of what it must be like to experience an online attack or mistaken identity. (For an account of a much harsher lesson, pick up James Lasdun’s memoir of being a victim of a horrifying Internet vendetta, Give Me Everything You Have.)
Everyone in the PR or reputation business knows that online reputation damage – deserved or not – is the underbelly of the anonymous web – both for critics and their targets. Google isn’t just a search engine, it’s a reputation engine, and anyone who’s checked out a prospective blind date will agree. What’s more, according to at least one source, 78% of recruiters do reputation searches for job candidates, and 63% check social media sites.
Of course, e-reputation concerns have spawned an entire industry, and the major social media sites have stepped up privacy and verification procedures under pressure, but people can be sloppy, rushed, and ignorant when it comes to social media usage. They’re also careless about anonymous handles, and as we all know, anonymity brings out the worst in just about everyone.
Yet having no digital footprint is also risky, at least in many relevant professions and business circles. So, how do you manage your e-reputation in a proactive way?
Monitor. Yes, we all monitor for online mentions of our name, but remember to watch the social media accounts of your closest contacts, including friends and family. They’re the ones most likely to be posting silly photos or worse.
Protect your online identity. Reputation starts with your name. Find out who has the same or highly similar name to yours; consider adopting an initial or using your full name if there’s a risk of confusion.
Sign up for every social network. You don’t need to be active on all sites or communities; in fact you can point everything to your Facebook page if that’s your identity hub, but claiming your name will deter squatters or namealikes.
Deal with any problems quickly. The sooner you ask your brother-in-law to delete the New Year’s party pictures or the blogger to correct the inaccurate quote, the better.
Secure your accounts. Obvious, but easy to forget or overlook at privacy settings and policies change. Switch off tagging, opt out of lists, and share your privacy preferences or concerns with close contacts who have access to information and images. A good way to do that is by asking about and respecting their wishes when it comes to sharing personal photos and content.
Don’t reveal personal information. Identity thieves can use key dates, children’s names or ages, or mutual friends to hijack your page.
Create content. Obviously this is the best way to build a positive digital identity and the first advice reputation professionals often give to clients. If a blog is too much, become an active commenter on other blogs or online communities.
Even a casual social media user has to exercise common sense, and a little vigilance, to protect their good name.