Muckmakers: Online-Reputation Firms Struggle With Ethics

Before You Hire One, Remember the Coverup Can Be Worse Than the Crime

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What do you get when you mix Google's complex search algorithm with rampant reputational concerns and a nascent industry offering to placate nervous CEOs fretting over seeing their head shots listed in search results for the latest scandal?

Answer: The shady underworld of the growing online-reputation-management industry.

Scant data exist as to the size of this market, but there is little doubt that business is booming. It's easy to see why: From the threat of WikiLeaks to their own ill-timed and ill-conceived proclamations, more than ever CEOs need help protecting their reputations and that of their businesses.

Maybe that 's why a Google search for "online-reputation management" returns 5.2 million results.

But there is a somewhat sinister underbelly to this prosperous business. It lurks where ethical communicators seek to inform; it openly tries to cover up previous online mishaps in an age where little is private anymore.

In short, it "cleans" up clients' online messes, while creating muck for the rest of us. For those who value ethical communications and marketing practices, it's not a pretty sight.

Allow me to explain.

There are many principled online-reputation-management firms. Rather than serving as suppression agents to keep clients' secrets safe from Google, the good ones provide rigorous education of the realities and challenges of reputation management in the digital age. They do so without sullying their own work or that of their peers.

Far too often, however, the good ones get shoved aside by those offering under-the-table tactics that mislead the public and the media. This is a disservice to their clients and the marketing-communications industry.

A recent series from The Times of London on the rising influence of this distant cousin of public relations revealed a slew of dubious practices that defy even the loosest of ethical standards. Among those is flooding online review sites with fake reviews on behalf of clients, as with the insidious fake product reviews of Reverb Communications that were exposed last year in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

Despite being banned in the U.S., the practice is so prevalent, according to The Times, many hoteliers believe rival hotel staffers are being trained by some firms to pose as customers and bash competitors online while writing glowing reviews on behalf of their employers.

There is tremendous financial temptation for companies to solicit brand-cleansing work. Studies have shown that 90% of people searching the web click on the first three links they find. Having your firm listed within that coveted first page of Google -- and, more important, having that link go to something positive about your brand -- is undeniably valuable.

But what value is that to marketers if the tactics used can get a client booted out of a favorable search ranking by Google's search regulators?

We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking this issue is isolated to online review sites. Wikipedia editors have long had a love-hate relationship with PR. In 2007, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales threatened to ban PR agencies from contributing to the site because of concerns over firms conveniently rearranging client entries to make them more pleasant.

With the Reverb settlement still sharp in marketers' minds, and the fallout of the Facebook/Burson-Marsteller incident looming over the industry, PR risks further alienating the business community -- one that will spend upward of $8 billion on our services by 2013 -- if we do not push for online-reputation-management firms to bring their ethics in line with industry standards.

Opaque attempts at subverting negative search results, or covering up what has already been published and linked to on the never-erased internet, is a no-win proposition. It's like trying to dig a tunnel to China: It may get you somewhere, but ultimately, you end up right back where you started.

Moreover, these practices go against the spirit of direct and democratic conversations between businesses and their stakeholders, one of the better results achieved through the use of social media.

It's time for the online reputation management industry to clean up its own act before it can have any hope of credibly doing the same for businesses.

Rosanna M. Fiske is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.
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