Can You Make Online Reputation Damage Disappear? Yes, There’s Hope.
Suffering from online reputation damage? Columnist Chris Silver Smith reveals some ways to help mitigate it, or even make it disappear entirely.
As an Online Reputation Management (ORM) specialist, I frequently get asked by potential clients what’s possible for their cases — mainly, “Is it possible to get this defamation or this terrible thing about me deleted off the internet?”
The answer is a qualified “Yes,” depending on the circumstances. Read on to get an idea of how reputation repair works.
When a person or a company has a negative thing made public about them on the internet, there are primarily only a few categories their situations may fall into:
1. Defamation: Someone publishes a false statement that is damaging to the company or person. This refers to an outright lie or misrepresentation communicated about the subject which causes them harm.
For instance, someone could say, “Acme Company broke my blue widget when I took it in to them for repairs, and they refused to take responsibility. They are incompetent and cheats.” If this isn’t what happened, or if it significantly exaggerates or misrepresents what really occurred, then it may be legally actionable.
2. Damaging Opinion: Someone publishes a damaging opinion about the company or person.
For instance, someone could say, “Acme Company broke a key part of my blue widget when I took it to them for repairs. It’s true that they warned me in advance that there was a risk of this happening and that the repair work would not be covered under the warranty, but from my point of view, Acme Company is just incompetent and is a cheat.”
Even if unfair, an opinion is generally going to be considered protected free speech, so there is unlikely any legal recourse if a negative opinion is published online.
3. Damaging Facts: Damaging facts about a company or person can come to light. Usually, there’s little or no legal recourse involving facts, and there’s not necessarily any requirement that people who publish facts provide any sort of important contextual information that can mitigate them or soften them.
For instance, if a news site published a story like “Acme Company factory failed multiple government inspections,” yet it was technically due to the failure of a third-party service provider, it can still damage Acme Company.
Headlines are often some of the most damaging elements of materials, because they are soundbites and there’s not room for the full story nor extenuating facts that might make the situation more palatable.
4. Contextually Damaging Materials: Something “Contextually Damaging” is a bit of a catch-all, and it can include damaging-yet-true stories about a person or company that coincidentally shares your name or salacious stories about a prominent employee of an organization.
For example, perhaps the borderline celebrity founder of Acme Company is involved in an emerging scandal — the company, stockholders and current employees no longer have anything to do with the founder, but their actions can still affect the image and perhaps even performance of the company.
5. Private Information From Personal Life Damaging Professional Image: This happens all too often, and it seems unfairly magnified in the internet age. Pics or videos of a person partying when they were younger, nude photos and other facts from one’s private life — all of these can sometimes be broadcast, affecting one’s professional career and future life.
So what happens when you find yourself in one of these categories?
First of all, there’s almost always hope. Most types of reputation damage can be mitigated in some way. In the best scenarios, it can be made to disappear entirely.
Here are a few of the top ways it can play out:
If you find yourself in situation #1, where you are the victim of defamation, there may be legal recourse you can take. Depending on how rapidly you respond (there are statutes of limitations that may apply, so action must be taken within a certain time frame), you may be able to sue the persons responsible for willfully damaging your reputation and compel them to stop doing it and to help you remove the materials.
Frankly, this is one of the best scenarios possible, because if you have a court order in hand that establishes that content posted about you is untrue and damaging, many publisher websites and search engines will remove that material. And, in the case of search engines, they will remove it from search results, or at least suppress it when your name is searched. (See “How To Remove Ripoff Reports From Google” for one good explanation.)
Google will remove stuff from search results when presented with a good court order, even though they’re not legally required to do so. (Internet publishers of third-party materials may not be required to remove stuff, unlike offline publishers.)
Bing, unfortunately, stopped removing such stuff, and they merely say: “Go get it removed at the source — we’re not responsible” (I paraphrase). Other prominent services like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr may help you by removing stuff out of goodwill, similar to Google.
But in most cases, obtaining a legal order comes with a very high price. Table stakes for initiating a legal suit can be anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 with attorneys specializing in this, and the process can be time-consuming: it may take months to obtain results.
Meanwhile, the damaging materials continue to eat at you or your company. In some of the most effective cases I’ve seen, a reputation repair agency is hired in parallel with an attorney, so that search engine optimization techniques can be used to help push down the negative materials while the legal case is getting underway.
Not infrequently, even after a court order is executed and take-down requests submitted to online sites, there can still be newly discovered materials appearing and taking the place of removed items. (Quite a few internet mechanisms result in content getting automatically duplicated across many types of sites, complicating this sort of work.)
And since Bing and some publishers won’t remove stuff, damaging things can still appear in that search engine beyond legal recourse — which means the only option is to perform online reputation improvement campaigns.
In some cases, though, obtaining a court ruling in your favor can get all damaging materials completely removed from visibility on the internet.
A Multi-Strategy Approach To Reduce Negative Opinion
For those in situation #2, where the damaging material originates from the expression of someone’s opinion, there may not be legal recourse. The most common situation is where a company is hurt by online reviews and ratings that are negative.
The three main things you can do for this are (1) respond to the review professionally in a way that takes some of the teeth out of it; (2) undertake a combination of strategies to elicit more positive reviews to dilute the negative one(s); and (3) use SEO to displace the negative review web pages so they’re not so prominent for people seeking information about you.
There are more options, as well. See my earlier article, “10 Ideas: How To Fix A Damning Business Review,” George Aspland’s “Local Businesses: How To Get Good Online Reviews That Build Business” and Andrew Shotland’s “5 Tips For Responding To Negative Customer Reviews Online.”
In most cases, you can reduce the damaging effects of negative opinions about you — and you can do it more rapidly if you prioritize it and put some effort into a multi-strategy approach.
Turn To An SEO Specialist, Or Even Rebrand
If you’re in situation #3, where damaging facts have come out — again, there’s less chance of using legal recourse. So you may have to accept that these damaging items may continue to exist and affect you long-term.
Naturally, you can post responses, explanations or rebuttals to these things, but if you’re trying to explain away something that’s fairly damaging, you may just be further harming yourself. (I’m not talking about a currently developing reputation crisis — if you have an immediate or current crisis, you may need the advice of a public relations crisis management specialist, and your issues may be much greater than merely online.)
The primary approach for dealing with damaging facts is probably going to be SEO and online reputation management tactics. A specialist may be able to help you build up your positive online materials to outrank the negative stuff, and they may be able to help remove negative stuff in some instances, such as from Wikipedia articles or business reviews posted by self-appointed vigilantes.
There’s an ongoing cost to such stuff, and you should factor this into your decisions about how you address it. I’ll go off the reservation here by telling you that in some instances, you may be better off with an outright name change — whether it’s your personal name or your company trademark.
SEO can sometimes require ongoing feeding and watering (and responding to continuing changes of search engine algorithms), so if we’re being honest here, then there are instances where a rebranding may be the cheapest and best option, long-term. (I’m a strategist, so I try not to take any options off the table.)
Distance Yourself From Damaging Entities
One of the most interesting scenarios is #4, where Contextually Damaging Materials emerge that damage a person or company. For some very amusing examples, such as businesses that happened to share the name, “ISIS,” read my earlier article, “When Brand Names Are Destroyed By Damaging Doppelgangers.”
I’ve been consulted by people who are affected by criminals that shared their names — child molesters, thieves and even serial killers. Simply being related to someone who has a bad reputation can often be damaging, distracting from one’s good image or just intrusive to privacy.
It’s very common for companies to have to deal with prominent employees or spokespeople getting involved in scandals — maybe the most famous one recently was Subway’s spokesman, Jared, getting charged with pedophilia crimes.
Yet this sort of thing happens to many hundreds of companies every year, and it’s not fair to their owners, stockholders and employees that they can get conceptually connected to others’ reputations in that way.
Most companies and individuals that are in some way connected to the bad reputations of others can survive it and emerge from it. In most cases, most people recognize that one is not always guilty by association, and there are traditional steps for distancing oneself from damaging entities (Subway fired Jared, for instance).
SEO and online reputation management can help in some of these instances by helping to push the negative association away from such prominent view, and other traditional marketing tactics can also help to carry the plot on down the road to more exciting and positive things.
Negative associations can fade from the public’s mind with time, and ORM can help push it out of the public consciousness online.
Proactive Online Reputation Management/Repair
Finally, as the information age has progressed, the #5 situation, where Private Information from Personal Life damages one’s professional image, comes up more and more frequently. For some, it’s the fact that while we make certain decisions when we’re young, we may be very different people when we’re mature.
For others, a little wild behavior in one’s private life may not reflect who we are professionally — or perhaps a moment of uncharacteristic behavior should simply not be our defining detail. (No other event has demonstrated this more dramatically than the effect of the Ashley Madison scandal in damaging reputations, which will continue to haunt those involved for some time.)
And all humans tend to have some degree of hypocrisy in their lives. We just haven’t had time to adapt as a species to the point of knowing all details, all the time, about everyone around us, or else we’d be a lot more tolerant of each other. The internet really has been breaking this paradigm wide open, and it continues to do so.
Depending on the type of the private information outed about one, it might or might not be legally actionable. In most of these cases, the main defense and reparative measures will be proactive online reputation management or online reputation repair.
Everyone should have a number of online assets to represent their names which are within their direct control. If you’re adept at SEO and social media management, you may be able to handle this yourself. If you have less time and experience in it, you may need to get a professional to handle it.
So, can one realistically make internet reputation damage disappear? Absolutely. Depending on the scale and severity, this can be managed or the damaging materials eliminated for the majority of people.
But be prepared to expend some significant resources to handle it properly — the steps needed require some labor and diligence.
It’s well worth it, however. As a sage wrote long ago in the Bible’s book of Proverbs, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”