You can’t afford NOT to have an online reputation…or someone else will provide it

Ostrich with head in sandThis is a matter of reputation management.

You no longer have the luxury of opting out from an online presence that you create and cultivate.

I don’t care that you don’t want to be on Facebook or other social networking sites. You really don’t have a choice any more, and it’s not because your children want you to get the pictures of the grandbabies there.

I happened to be watching Dr. Phil with my wife last week, and the topic was a website called TheDirty.com that apparently lets individuals post scurrilous gossip about celebrities and wannabes, without making any effort to ascertain the truth of the postings.

The website founder and his lawyer were making the argument that it’s not their responsibility to ensure that everything is accurate. This is akin to the argument made — successfully — by most common carriers like Internet service providers or telephone companies, that they shouldn’t be liable for the communications that people engage in while using their services. So if I use the telephone to plan to rob a bank, the phone company isn’t legally a party to the crime.

The problem I see with content like this is not that people can slime anyone by posting vicious gossip, they’ve been doing that for years. A vicious, whispered rumor campaign spread merely by word-of-mouth in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, and it drove a local television news anchor out of town and out of the business even before most people had heard of the Internet, so reputation assassination by rumor is nothing new.

What is new, however, is how much we depend on the Internet to check out reputations and achievements of people in our circles of influence. We check restaurants for reviews, we look up addresses of companies we are about to do business with, there are websites that offer reviews and comments on businesses.

Parents do Google searches of their daughters’ boyfriends (no, I haven’t. Yet.)

Companies check out job applicants Facebook pages, and we do know that you can be fired for posting negative comments about your boss — unless other employees jump into the conversation, which the National Labor Relations Board now says might be protected “concerted activity” covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Juxtapose those factoids with the frequently heard Baby Boomer comment “I don’t want to be on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or any of those sites. I don’t want anyone to know anything about what I’m doing, or what I had for lunch.”

The problem is that the Internet, like television news, abhors a vacuum, and if you have no online persona at all, there are vandals on the Internet who are likely to fill that empty space with a whole (read negative) biography completely outside of your control.

So you may not want to be visible on the net, but that ex-partner with a grudge may be blogging about your purported lack of business ethics, or someone you insulted back in college without knowing it could be posting those embarrassing fraternity party pictures years after you thought they were burned up during Hell Week.

And how do you defend yourself when it’s so impossible to get this stuff removed from the web?

There’s really only one way, and that is to take control of, and create for yourself, an online trail, a presence, a persona.

You have to have an online reputation that you control, from a LinkedIn profile to a Google profile, to a website of some sort and evidence of your good character and professionalism.

At least by curating your own content and your own reputation, you can make sure that when people check you out online, they don’t ONLY see the negative stuff that is being posted by crazies. They will see content that you have created and nurtured, evidence of your career achievements and your thought processes.

If they see nothing but what your detractors want them to see, they will not see you.

And even though you might think you want to be unseen and unheard on the Internet, you no longer have that luxury if you are in business for yourself or with others.

You have to have a credible, serious, professional reputation on the net, or you run the risk that someone will trash it for you whether you are there or not.

3 Comments on You can’t afford NOT to have an online reputation…or someone else will provide it

  1. Steve,

    You hit the nail on the head. Having an online presence is no longer an option.

    Unfortunately, I know too many people that resemble your photo of the Ostrich. While ignorance may be bliss for some, it can turn expensive as you suggest. Any person that needs to develop or maintain a professional relationship must either maintain an internet presence or be prepared to respond to what could potentially be a big mess.

  2. The New York Times has picked up on this issue, focusing on damage control by the online reputation managers, in http://nyti.ms/fMLDy1. Of course, as I argued above, you can’t afford to wait until you are in that kind of trouble, you should be cultivating and controlling your own online reputation by having one before someone else gives it to you.

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