Web U: The Problem With Perfection

Online, even smelling like a rose doesn't cut it anymore

Whenever we talk about online reputation management, as with most things in life, we immediately gravitate toward the bad stuff: a negative article in a newspaper, a bad review on a blog, a fake MySpace profile. In my experience, few people possess the vision to offer reputation management to people and companies without problems. Why does reputation management have to be solely concerned with repairing or defending a reputation? Can it not be about crafting a reputation to be about specific things? Is there a step beyond simply viewing a reputation as good or bad? Absolutely.

Close your eyes and let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a young man - let's call him Mr. Perfect - dreamed of becoming a politician. In high school, he rose to the top of his class as president and valedictorian. In college, he successfully lobbied the state government to increase financial aid to his school. Not coincidentally, his peers voted him student government treasurer for three years straight. During his last year at college, he met a lovely young lady and they married just a few short months after meeting. Upon graduating with a political science degree, he became interested in municipal government and took a low-level job as a legal researcher. Over time, he again worked his way up the ladder, making all-important friends and connections along the way.

Ten years later, in a landslide vote, the public elected Mr. Perfect mayor. During the next 20 years, while ascending the political ladder, he watched his three children grow up, achieve academic and sports scholarships, and attend college. Every year, his marriage grew stronger. (Not once did he find himself involved in a scandal with a call girl.) He's now retired from politics with an exemplary career and nothing but praise for the policies he initiated. Today, he's taken to breeding greyhounds and has become a well-known face in the world of collectible firearms.

So, the million-dollar question: Does our hero need reputation management?

Yes, indeed.

After reviewing Mr. Perfect's career and news coverage, you'd probably assume he doesn't need reputation work because, quite frankly, everything he touches apparently turns to gold.

But let's take a closer look by searching for Mr. Perfect on Google, Yahoo and Live. An article in The Washington Post discusses his political career, and a Wall Street Journal story mentions his involvement in passing a law guaranteeing health care for children. His Wikipedia page details his political career with surprising accuracy. All of the rest of the search results are political, too.

The problem here is not that these stories don't accurately describe who Mr. Perfect was; rather, it's that they don't acknowledge who he is today. He wants to be known for his champion greyhounds and the fact that he owns one of only two 1905 .45 ACP Lugers in existence. These facts don't show up in a search until the fifth page of Google and the fourth page of Live. And it turns out his Wikipedia page is under the purview of a political junkie who is allergic to dogs and finds firearms to be a symbol of all that is wrong in the world.

What can Mr. Perfect do? He could begin by tackling some of the usual tasks in online reputation management: create LinkedIn and Naymz pages, maintain a personal Web site, and so on and so forth. Will doing this guarantee an impact against the WSJ and Washington Post stories and his dot-gov biography page? Maybe, though it's unlikely. This is probably a job for the professionals.

Online reputation management gets a bit of a bad rap from time to time (the terms "cover-up artists" and "whitewashers" are usually bandied about), but it's important to remember that as this new online industry blossoms into maturity, just as Mr. Perfect did, reputation management can be integral to a larger PR campaign.

Todd Friesen is vice president of Position Technologies.

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