How To Protect Your Digital Reputation

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.

PR Techniques: How To Get ZMOT On Your Side

Marketers like to talk about the Zero Moment of Truth, or ZMOT, for a product or brand. Loosely defined as the moment when a prospective buyer looks for online reviews and recommendations for a product, ZMOT follows the P&G tenets of the “first moment of truth,” when a customer chooses a product on the store shelf, and the second one, when she uses it at home.

ZMOT may be a new buzzword, but to PR professionals, it’s just another way of describing how online reputation and word-of-mouth recommendations converge to make the buyer’s habit of “pre-shopping” a make-or-break factor for a brand. Part of our job is to help manage that reputation.

What’s interesting is that ZMOT holds true for people also. With new graduates facing a tough job market, and many more seasoned professionals finding the employment picture equally challenging, it’s important to deploy classic, and newer, PR techniques and tactics to get ZMOT on your side. Here are some tips from the PR and communications side.

Revamp your online reputation. One of the first things we do in setting up a new client program is research, including listening to what’s said about the business or brand.  Of course, everyone in the job market knows the power of online reputation but nurturing a personal brand, or winning your personal ZMOT, isn’t just about managing the negative.  It’s about maximizing page one of search results to reflect a proactive, current positioning that communicates expertise.

Reference your authority. To that point, you can position yourself as an expert in your area through regular blog posts or – most underused – short videos on YouTube.  Start discussions on LinkedIn.  Become a regular part of the community on key blogs in your area.  Post in the professional groups on Quora.  Get more active in professional organizations online. Make connections but convey expertise as you do so.

Repackage yourself. That’s what we say when a certain story pitch isn’t working.  If your CV is being rejected out-of-hand, it’s time to replace dated anecdotes with fresh ones and present your skills and experience in a current context. According to recruiters, it’s best to focus on the last 15 years of your resume.  And everything – from your resume to your look to your digital profile – should be up-to-date.

Create a ‘news stream.’ Just as a growing company plans its press communications to craft a larger story of growth and success, you can look at your communication to your core network the same way.  Draw up an editorial calendar of planned updates to key recommenders.  Push them out in appropriate and personalized ways.

Hone your storytelling talents. Yes, the product turnaround, the team that jelled just in time to win the large client, or the career change can be interview gold.  But most people don’t work hard enough at it.  There’s some terrific advice on storytelling for business out there from experts that range from Steve Denning to Hollywood’s Peter Guber.

Media-train yourself.  Storytelling mastery is difficult, as are open-ended or unexpected questions. It’s not too extreme to do what the pros do.  Draw up a list of tough or open-ended questions, craft the best responses and storylines, and videotape yourself in a mock interview.  Then hone your answers and anecdotes and do it again until it’s natural and seamless.

Line up recommenders and keep them in the loop. This is another key ingredient of ZMOT. The power of reputation lies in third-party endorsement, whether implied or explicit.  Many employers “pre-shop” for senior level candidates before meeting them.  Make sure key colleagues, clients, mentors, and peers are in the loop and ready to say the right things if they’re asked because the most credible references are informal ones.

A different version of this post was recently published on MENGBlend.

When Fans Attack: How To Defend A Brand’s Reputation Online

A social media presence can morph from PR asset to liability in the time it takes to say “brandjacking.” The recent takeover of Nestle’s Facebook page by Greenpeace activists has many brand marketers dusting off their crisis programs.  But the world has changed. How do you defend your brand if, despite good business and communications practices, you become a target? What can you do if your brand is attacked on its own turf, or in a public online forum?

First, anticipate. If your crisis plan was last updated in 1993, or even two years ago, it’s not relevant. Have an online listening post, focus on the most likely criticisms and complaint scenarios, and make sure your messages are current.

Ramp up customer service. Would you put an intern on the phone to handle a client complaint? Don’t do it online either. Make sure your communications team is trained in customer relations, and vice versa. Not every company is ready to jump into Social CRM, but the line between communications and customer service is getting blurrier every day.

Stay calm. When the heat is on, sarcasm and anger are not your friend. Don’t be funny or flippant either. Use of humor is a classic apology PR tactic for an individual under fire, but a corporation should take legitimate customer criticism very, very seriously.

Be transparent. In most attack situations, it’s not worth closing off comments or trying to astroturf your way out of trouble. It rarely works and is often exposed.

Be timely. Nothing pours kerosene on a customer complaint fire like silence. A timely answer, even if not the desired response, is better than the void.

Take it offline. When complaints cascade anonymously, it’s often impossible to deal with them offline. But, on Facebook and other sites where comments are transparent, offline resolutions may be possible, and the complaint chain may be interrupted.

Apologize. If the situation warrants. Though the public apology is being rapidly commoditized, a sincere, factual, and personalized apology beats silence, defensiveness, or apathy.

Use the media. Be ready to produce a response commensurate with the attack – through online commentary, video, and social media news releases.

Look for – and leverage – the opportunity. A negative situation doesn’t always spell lasting damage. In fact, it can be an opportunity to tout positive change, clear up a misimpression, and build customer engagement. No one is more loyal than a grateful customer. If the problem can’t be fixed, a fair hearing can still go a long way.

Why Are They Saying Those Things About You?

A while back, I was shocked to see some harsh criticism of me on an IT Internet forum. Strangers were calling Dorothy Crenshaw incompetent and even demanding that I be fired…which I thought was pretty unfair considering I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

I quickly realized it wasn’t about me.  It turned out that I share a name with an information officer for a public school system in the Midwest, and an IT security breach prompted an online brawl in which the other Dorothy was briefly targeted by irate residents.

Given our different geographies and professions, my online reputation risk from that incident was minimal.  But, it was an unpleasant taste of what it must feel like to experience a malicious or mistaken usurpation of one’s personal or business identity online.

This week, a story in our industry provided another, better example, which is both entertaining and disturbing. Earlier this year, Michigan PR firm Tanner Friedman discovered that someone had squatted on its Twitter handle and was impersonating the firm by tweeting nasty and unflattering updates. Tanner was forced to sue an unknown “John Doe” who was this week revealed to be – surprise! – a rival agency.

Anyone in the PR or reputation business should know that online reputation damage – deserved or not – is the underbelly of our exploding social media and blog culture.  But social media is touted so strongly as an easy way to build a brand online, that some small business and individuals might not fully realize there’s a flip side to it. It’s been said that Google, after all, is not just a search engine, it’s a reputation engine, as anyone who’s checked out a prospective blind date knows. And for individuals, the rise of social media has made online reputation a more challenging issue. It’s one reason that Facebook registered 500,000 usernames in only 15 minutes a couple of weeks ago after it changed its policy to grant users custom URLs. And, it’s given rise to services that in some cases charge stiff fees to “erase” online slander and protect Web identity, and in other cases are outright bogus.  (There are plenty of free tools for basic monitoring, starting with Google Alerts.)

Finally, the major social media sites need to step up to protect users, which they’ve done only in fits and starts, behind highly publicized identity poachings like the Tony La Russa case.  Facebook has said it will resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis, which isn’t very reassuring for those usurped in a URL land-grab.  Twitter moved recently to authenticate celebrity accounts, but there’s more to identify verification and customer service than just serving the needs of the famous, and Twitter has a deservedly spotty reputation for both.

Until more sophisticated measures are in place, even a casual social media user has to exercise common sense, and a little vigilance, to protect their good name.