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Spinning a Bad Reputation

Now that you can track what people say about you (your family, your employees, your product, your town…whatever it is that you hold dear), what can you do about it? Managing your reputation is a much thornier issue than tracking it.

Asking Nicely

One of the best ways to manage your reputation is to show up and have your case heard. Asking people to stop saying what they’re saying, apologizing for things you’ve said, clarifying misconstrued statements…these are things we’ve been doing in the real world since the spoken word began.

When people hurl the first things that come out of their mouths into a note, a simple reminder that the recipient is a living, breathing, feeling human being often helps. Giving a body to the disembodied voices of the web brings civility back into the equation. “I’m sorry,” “my mistake,” and “I didn’t mean to cause you grief” are terms that are in short supply on the Internet.

As a blogger (who incidentally finds that being wrong generates the most traffic), I’ve apologized for making mistakes, confronted those who don’t care for my ideas, and tried very hard not to be offensive. Sometimes it’s hopeless. But nine of out 10 times you establish a personal relationship with the enemy and move on.

Reporting a Problem

Your next recourse would be to report a problem to your service provider. Most have a “report problems” button. If it’s easily verified that there’s something wrong going on, the service provider will attempt to suspend, if not cancel, the troublemaker’s account. If complaints from a number of sources trickle in, it’s more likely the complaint will be addressed.

The Legal Route

Of course, there are legal options to seek compensation when someone says something you feel is untrue and harmful. Hard enough to prove in the real world, these libel cases are almost impossible to win in cyberspace. In part that’s because you can quickly defend yourself and correct the record on the Internet, and in part because the courts are likely to play ostrich when it comes to libel rulings on the web. A simple explanation of libel, easy enough for non-lawyers to digest, comes from Larry Lessig’s blog. (He’s a professor and Internet law specialist at Stanford.)

The Reputation Scrubbers

Now to the juiciest part of reputation management. A cross between a personal private eye and a personal vigilante, these are new services that combine the good old craft of PR and spin with search and linking technologies.

Reputation Hawk, ReputationDefender, and International Reputation Management are three of the leading sites that attempt to fix their clients’ sullied profiles. How do they do that? They flood the web with good content, drowning the bad. And they cross-link favorable content in order to get the good stuff to appear higher in a web search.

Just like in the real world, where reputations can be fixed for a price using a PR firm, there’s bound to be a skewing of reality. Case in point: I spoke with Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, after he helped spin Sue Scheff’s web situation into gold. Scheff, who runs an educational consulting firm that places troubled teens in residential programs, recently won $11.3 million from the Florida courts. Scheff sued a woman named Carey Brock, a disgruntled customer who expressed her displeasure by posting complaints about Scheff’s services. The posts called Scheff a crook and fraud.

If you aren’t following this case you should be. It’s a clear example of how those with the money can manipulate their reputations. Some commentators believe Scheff is a heroine who stood up against Internet falsehoods to emerge victorious. A few voices rally behind Brock as a consumer without the media savvy to sway the court, but as a woman who simply wanted to warn others about what she considered terrible business practices.

The only certainty is that Scheff is litigious. She recently took action against another website whose owner took the name as a way of criticism. You can follow along at Topix with its recap, or straight from the horse’s mouth at Sue Scheff’s site.

The Scheff story is troubling. I wrote a note to ReputationDefender’s Michael Fertik a few months back:

“It’s one thing to write a nice ‘cease and desist’ letter to the person or site that’s giving you agita; it’s another thing to populate the web with verbiage and links in an attempt to tip the search scales. You are not alone in providing these services and, in fact, you may be the most honest of them, but you are still using the Internet to manipulate the truth.”