Several months ago, as a favor to a friend, I did an informational interview with a recent grad -- a nice young woman with an Ivy League degree. At the end of our coffee, she leaned in and lowered her eyes. "There's something else I should mention," she said. "I'm not sure if you Googled me before we met, but... there are some negative things being said about me online." Her distinctive name and a deranged ex-boyfriend conspired to create a reputation nightmare that's taken years to resolve and crippled her job search efforts.
So what can you do if your online reputation has been damaged, whether by others or your own mistakes? Here are four strategies to hasten your comeback.
1. Be upfront. Let's face it: any sane employer/customer/prospective date will Google you the minute they're serious about doing business with you. It's far better to control the terms of disclosure -- like my young "informational interviewee" did -- than wait for them to discover the negative information on their own. Let them know what's out there, what the truth is, and what you're doing to respond to it. (I advised the recent grad that she could even spin her experience as a positive: since she's looking for a communications job, she knows personally the power of online branding and reputation management.)
2. Apologize if necessary. Sometimes -- alas -- you're responsible for the mistake. A central tenet of crisis communications is to apologize as quickly as possible, so you don't inflame the public or your bosses by appearing clueless or defiant. A good example is Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, who earlier this year bizarrely decided to tweet out misinformation about an NFL quarterback (see the Post ombudsman's coverage). With a one month suspension in hand, he manned it up and took responsibility, tamping down the furor over his breach of journalistic standards: "I'm paying the price I should for careless, dumb behavior in the multi-platform media world," he announced on his radio program.
3. Get it down. The permanence of the web creates a major branding challenge: once negative information is out there, it's painfully hard to remove. If you've created the questionable content (a thoughtless tweet, a tasteless YouTube video) you can delete it and -- eventually -- it will be removed from the caches of Google and other search engines (you can hasten the process by asking Google to remove a page or site from its listings -- but only once it's been taken down). If you don't control the content, all you can really do is ask the person who does to remove it. This could be polite (a friend who's posted an inappropriate photo to Facebook will probably oblige you) or not-so-polite (you may need to enlist a lawyer if someone is defaming you and won't desist).
4. Own your SEO. The best and surest way to overcome negative information that's plastered on the web? Create your own content and drive the bad stuff down in search engine rankings. No one but your worst enemy will bother to visit Page 20 on a Google search; most readers will stick to the first page or two. Creating a robust social media and online presence guarantees that the top results will be the ones you want people to see. Studies by Forrester Research have shown that video, in particular, is prized by Google and will rank highly, so you might want to consider a video blog. Traditional blogs, because their content is updated frequently, are also search-engine-friendly (check out this somewhat-geeky PC World article on how to improve the search engine optimization of your blog). Creating profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter also helps (they're frequently at the top of Internet searches), and it also never hurts to get quoted in the media or write articles for various publications (which benefits anyone's personal brand).
In the online era, it can be hard to repair a damaged online reputation -- but it's not impossible. What strategies have you used to overcome negative information online, or proactively develop a positive reputation?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.