In truth, a good share of online reputation pitfalls are self inflicted, such as Ill-advised political rants or images of a drunken excursion on Instagram. Reputational risk is a worry for 87 percent of executives according to Deloitte. But the biggest damage of all, unfortunately, can emerge when you least expect it from the "ex files"--ex employees, former life or business partners or disgruntled clients--who can cause willful damage with a vengeful intent. This week I spoke with Steven Giovinco, of Recover Reputation, about kinds of damage that may come out of the blue.
1. How a Facebook Photo Can Ruin a Reputation
Did you know it's possible to have your reputation ruined through Facebook even if you don't maintain an active account? This was the case for an executive we'll call "Henry" who believed he was safe from social media danger because his presence was low.
His daughter, however, was an active user on Facebook. She posted a photo, which in and of itself was innocuous, since it was just an image of a young girl on the street. But the caption identified that she was standing next to her father. It took some sleuthing, but a disgruntled ex-client who saw the image was able to use the connection to gather additional information. He mounted a costly smear campaign against the executive with the material he found. Immediately, negative blog posts began appearing at the top of Google's results, damaging his personal and professional goals.
The moral of this story: If you don't want to be identified in social media, make your friends and your children, especially, aware. Likewise, beware the photos and information you post of your children, for their own safety as well.
2. How Fake Reviews Can Harm Your Business
Ever think about writing your own online reviews, just to give a little boost to your business? No one will ever know, right? Think again. According to Giovinco, the New York Attorney General recently fined 19 search engine optimization companies for writing fake internet reviews. They set up a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn to solicit unscrupulous SEO firms to generate glowing reviews on Yelp, Google, Yahoo and Citysearch. The total in fines was $350,000 for pieces written in Eastern Europe, Bangladesh and the Philippines for as little as a dollar apiece.
Yes, the bad remarks can hurt you. According to a 2011 Harvard Business School study, it is estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translates to an increase of 5-9% in restaurant revenues.
But is the risk of the fakery worth it? Clearly, no. If caught, your reputation would sink to the floor. The way to garner that 1-2 star advantage with safety: Invite and remind your happy customers to leave their opinions online. Offer your customers a free dessert if they'll take the extra minute to leave an opinion. Open a conversation with your desire to serve a client so well they'd want to leave you a 5-star review and make it easy to do so. And if you've disappointed a customer, act quickly to answer the situation or turn the situation around.
Which brings up another point: You should thoroughly investigate the reviews of any SEO firm you may use. Leave the "black hat" practitioners be.
3. Doppelganger Danger
Beware the modern industry of Doppelganger creations: new online identities for those with a tarnished Google trail. Reporter Graeme Wood wrote in New York Magazine about a Harvard classmate who was arrested for trying to hide millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account. The classmate was punished; the chargers were dropped, but the events stayed online like a "scarlet letter" in Google results.
A few years later, however, Wood noticed that the fortunes of his classmate had substantially turned. Press releases, blogs, and websites suddenly extolled the accomplishments of his wayward and repentant friend.
But something was wrong with these sites, which in every case looked flimsy and temporary, Wood noted. Sure enough, an online reputation management firm had been hired to scrub the fellow's past record clean.
For this situation, the activities were not "black hat." The former stories were accurate and could not be removed.
But being on the record for your true and current activities is the best way to move the record of prior occurrences down. The mistake in this case was that the efforts to replace the bad information were too effusive and stilted in their tone to ring true. It would have been more effective in this case for the executive to simply be honorable and authentic, and when in doubt, "underplay."
The Bottom Line
The best way to protect a reputation is again and still to run an honest and high integrity business. Be on the record as who you authentically are. This will do more than anything else to prevent a reputation crisis from happening. But if a crisis occurs--and it may--be equally scrupulous in who you work with and how you attempt to accomplish repair. Your greatest success, Giovinco says, is when your reputation is consistent and solid enough that the occasional negative comment doesn't warrant a glance.