Thanks to the Internet, there is another form of a "permanent record": once something is said online about you or your brand, it's being indexed by the major search engines. And when you Google search a company, an organization or an individual, what you get is a long list of relevant postings.
The much-ballyhooed permanent record.
The good news is, even though we may not be able to control all the online content out there that pertains to us, we still have an opportunity to "manage" it.
Here are five things you can do to manage your reputation online:
1) Accept that knowledge is power. If you don't know what is being said, you won't be able to manage it. Make it a best practice to survey major social networks and blogs for comments about your company, products or competitors. Free tools such as Google Alerts and SocialMention.com can help you get started.
Too often, companies don't like to even admit the possibility that negative things are being said about their brand. Their attitude seems to be, "If I ignore it, maybe everybody else will, too." Reality check: they won't.
2) Take steps to "organize the speech." While you can't control what people are saying about you, you can organize that speech by making sure your "good stuff" indexes high, that you add fresh, interesting content on a regular basis and that you correctly "claim" the listings (Google Places and Yelp, for example) that you are entitled to.
3) Don't be shy about rationally responding to the not-so-good stuff. And do it with an attitude of "helping." By "respond," I'm not talking about arguing, justifying or trying to bribe commentators into pacification. It is more of an acknowledgment that you've heard the person, and you are sincere in your attempt to help them work through their issues.
While it's understandable to think of Social Media as a dialogue with many, actually it is actually more of a one-on-one conversation that takes place in front of a very large audience. Once your community sees how you deal with comments -- both positive and negative -- they'll have a fuller view of you. For a crash course in how NOT to do this, check out this experience Kathi Kruse wrote about regarding her experience with Hertz Rent-a-Car.
4) Reach out to the people and groups that love your brand. Getting others to talk about your brand, whether on your pages or elsewhere, is a terrific way to get positive comments indexed. Embrace the people who love your brand and give them every opportunity to speak up and share the good word.
5) Check your Google results regularly, and regularly add new dynamic content to the mix. Google doesn't index Web sites -- it indexes "pages." So whenever you add a new content page to your blog, or post a new article to your news page, you're giving Google one more opportunity to help you show up in a positive light.
It pays to regularly do a "Google check" of your brand and other trademarks to see what's out there. If you come across some less-than-flattering comments about some aspect of your organization or its services, indirectly answer them by writing a blog post that provides your point of view on the matter. There's a pretty good chance your retort will show up in the same search as the original negative content.
The advantage of knowing what's being said about you, good and bad, is that it gives you an opportunity to respond immediately. You have a lot invested in your good name. It's definitely worth taking a few proactive measures to protect it.