While nothing’s changed at all since before Edward Snowden leaked both the existence of the NSA‘s PRISM program and its full reach, I now have the opportunity to have a little bit of a different conversation with you, my reader. My assumption is that you’ve heretofore been drenched in statecraft, spycraft, and surveillance. Good. Now, think about your own reputation, both online — your curated public life — and offline — your discrete and private life.
Up until now, you might have been under the impression that you have explicit, precise and complete control of your likeness, history, expertise, and story online — that your online persona is like your personal art gallery: you don’t.
The news about Snowden educates us in two ways: not only are we as citizens vulnerable to electronic snooping by modern digital spies but even the spies are vulnerable to the Snowdens of the world as well.
Yes, we are all an open book to not merely the NSA but also to corporate espionage and personal vendettas (including exes); however, even the closed books are vulnerable.
What you really need to learn is to become more integrated. You don’t have to be good, necessarily, but you’ll need to become more honest.
Our secrets are our sickness — and our vulnerability.
For example, you can hire me to clean up the results on Google that say you’re a Slumlord; however, if your properties are riddled with bedbugs, the roof leaks, you never repair anything, and your tenants lose power and water routinely, then you’ll never win: online reputation management (ORM) doesn’t change the world, you do. While I may well be able to clean the Google search of a slumlord, it’ll end up being more expensive than fixing your properties, I bet, and it’ll also be temporary and volatile.
In the same way, if you’re a covert organization that’s been giving “the least untruths” to Congress and those untruths are way out of line with how normal, civilian, people, without a need-to-know clearance, expect your organization to behave (foreign, not domestic, tap, tap, tapping, please) then don’t be surprised when a self-styled vigilante takes it upon his or herself to normalize the pressure between what’s true (but Above Top Secret) and what is perceived to be true — no matter what those things are. (In fact, maybe I am more paranoid than the MilTel community, but PRISM should have had an entire “blowback strategy” in the pipe and ready to go well in advance, it was only a matter of time)
Tick, tick, tick . . .
So, in both cases, and from my decade of professional experience in ORM, most reputation disasters can — and should — be anticipated, prepared for, and even rehearsed. The “truth” always gets out — even pre-Internet. And it doesn’t care whether there’s a gag order on it or if it’ll result in a firing squad at dawn because of treasonous acts. I don’t know about the rest of the world but America is proudly populated by 350 million potential martyrs who’s founding fathers were anti-British “terrorists” and “traitors” of the Crown and so on and so forth.
If you piss off even one person enough, they’ll sacrifice their own online reputation in order to decimate yours. I have seen it again and again.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
So, at the end of the day, if you’re even treading lightly on even the neighboring territories to tyranny, you’ll just about always find someone who’ll be willing to sacrifice life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all in order to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That’s why people are seemingly willing to make grand public fools of themselves just because a dry cleaner ruined someone’s cashmere sweater: we Americans are dangerous: we’re all looking for either a cause célèbre or a noble cause — generally both. And, in a world where having a grand reputation car crash can get you into a reality show, the down-side is becoming less and less of a risk. And, in an economy where people have lost everything, people have nothing to lose.
While I think that tools and processes of online reputation management are pretty important when it comes to actually taking control of your company’s or your reputation online, it’s really not about shortcuts, secrets, or an SEO panacea you can just write a check towards — even if you’re willing to mortgage your home! It doesn’t matter.
No matter how much money you have, repairing your reputation on Google takes three months.
Do you have 90 days?
Whether I was doing online reputation management as Technology Strategist of New Media Strategies (NMS), as president of Gerris digital or as Team Lead, Special Projects, at Reputation.com, reputation-fixing takes time. Neither Rome nor reputation was built nor fixed in a day.
And, it seems, that the more money you have, the bigger the mistake and the more interested the world is in covering, messaging, repeating it and the more people are searching for it.
Ha ha ha.
And, what’s more — if you don’t spend even more time, attention, and resources being contrite, making amends, repairing broken systems, increasing quality and value, and rebooting customer service, then all the resources in the world will never be able to get that final negative result off of the top-five on the front page of Google.
And, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, too: let’s say you spend that money in order to repair your online reputation on Google Search as well as Google Images but you just go-to-ground, turtling, instead of indulging in a big heaping serving of mea maxima culpa, then your ORM team won’t have nearly enough really good stuff to work with: start a fund, a foundation, a non profit, join a board, do something newsworthy and altruistic — be awesome! — as there’s nothing more dangerous (or, actually, unpredictable and oftentimes volatile) than both being rich and powerful while also not taking calls from TMZ — in a world where everyone has access to everything, being a private person who doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t participate at least on LinkedIn, or isn’t willing to engage mediasphere’s mad 24-hour dance, then they’ll still write all those salacious stories, they’ll just write their stories about you without you; and they’ll probably paint you as a madman, as an eccentric, as having something to hide, and they might even speculate murder — you’ll surely be painted as Howard Hughes in the best case and the Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski, if you really struggle and disappear to a small cabin in the wilds of Montana.
Fill your vacuum, populate your existence online, especially if you ever want to become someone, become something. Even if you coulda been a contender, coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what you are, states like Florida publish mug shots — so, while I might have once said that I would be fine to not buy a couple domain names that are as close to your name — and the name of your business and close family — and it might be fine not to start a blog or participate in social media or create online content, a personal portfolio, a company site, and a strong LinkedIn presence if you are, in fact, a bum, it doesn’t matter anymore.
In the age of PRISM (and whatever else there is, both corporate, private, foreign, or even blacker-budget), personal and corporate online reputation management isn’t less essential (now that we live in a “what’s the use” sort of world) but even more essential. In a world where your reputation is being defined every day by the yottabytes of textual data and metadata that’s being sucked in and analyzed every day, don’t you want to at least contribute your side of the story, at least to the tune of a very important kilobytes or megabytes?
It is your responsibility as a patriotic American, in fact, to sing the song of yourself in much the same way as the greatest of all American poets predicted (as if anticipating Social Media, Reputation Management, and PRISM) we should way back in the 19th century in his poem, Song of Myself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back awhile sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
(Disclosure: I am a former employee of Reputation.com and they continue to sponsor my work)
About Chris Abraham
A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.