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The World Wide Web turns 25 today: welcome to a new generation of ‘reputation engineers’

There are people whose primary job is to edit the internet. ‘Online reputation engineers’ scour the web on behalf of their clients, proactively or reactively putting their proverbial best foot forward. Reputation engineering has become a controversial topic in recent times; it raises questions on journalistic integrity and the meaning of a free internet. But in a digital age where juicy gossip, torrid affairs and financial scandals dominate our headlines, the question remains, are reputation engineers the saints or sinners of the web?

_73512646_stblIn little more than twenty years since Tim Berners-Lee (left) invented the World Wide Web bit has irrevocably changed our lives. It has given us instant mass communication and access to more information than we could previously have imagined. Not only has it changed our lives, the digital age has changed the rules. We now live in a world of sensational, gossip-mongering headlines that are created not to convey truth, but rather to get you to click a link, and hit the all important ‘share’ button. The darker side of the new media is one where journalistic integrity has been misplaced; and people’s reputations and careers can be made or broken. Without specialist help, lives can be ruined by online gossip.

Mark Twain famously said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

imagesThe actor, Alec Baldwin (left) might agree with Twain. Baldwin has publicly campaigned for gay rights and shared a stage with activists. He has even officiated at a gay friend’s wedding. But if you’ve been reading the news lately, you wouldn’t immediately think of Baldwin as a supporter of gay rights. Confronted by aggressive journalists who have harassed him and his family he has, at times, lost his temper. In a highly publicised incident, reported the world over, he shouted at a reporter, using colourful language which was allegedly homophobic. In another, a Daily Mail journalist wrote about his wife using her mobile phone whilst at the funeral of his friend, James Gandolfini. Baldwin, enraged by the article which he saw as malicious, responded with angry tweets in which he described the journalist as a “toxic little queen”.

In response, major news sites and social media writers the world over have branded Baldwin a homophobe. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, it’s an accusation that has stuck. It may be untrue, but because of the the media’s appetite for scandal it’s now a part of his reputation. Baldwin comments in a recent article in New York Magazine: “In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.” So fed up is he with the treatment he’s had from the media that he has decided to stop giving interviews and avoid all contact with journalists.

In Britain, we are used to some poor standards of journalism amongst the tabloid press.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Leveson Inquiry publicly unearthed much of Fleet Street’s most deplorable practices; but even the most cynical paparazzi can look principled in comparison with the standards of online reporting, where rumours, innuendo and outright lies can be hugely amplified in the echo chamber that is the internet. Online, the herd mentality of the press is even more extreme than in the newspapers. Worse still, in the online age, everything is archived. Before the internet, yesterday’s newspapers just became the wrapping for today’s fish and chips. Once on the Web, however, an unfavourable story can stay there, accessible by search engine for years, perhaps for a lifetime. For some, one bad story will become the first thing that anyone knows about them. No second chances. No right of reply.

This problem of the digital age has created a new market for online reputation management. A host of clever new companies are springing up to offer a blend of traditional PR and online expertise. They serve individuals afflicted by unfair internet-driven damage to their reputations. Such companies aim to clean up online reputations by crowding out negative stories, driving them down Google’s rankings, whilst prominently placing more positive coverage. In this way they can create a better and more balanced image for their clients.

The sheer vastness of the internet can also lead to problems of mistaken identity.

Finance worker, Kevin G. began applying for jobs after five years with the same company. When he was turned down without an interview several times he decided to check his own name on Google. He was shocked to discover that the first page of Google’s results referenced a child sex offender with the same name. His criminal namesake was forty years older than him and had a different middle initial, but who reads further than the brief synopses on Google’s first page of results? Knowing that a lot of employers will check out candidates on the internet, he became convinced that this was the cause of the problem. He turned to online reputation engineering to get help.

More and more are turning to online reputation engineering.

And Kevin isn’t the only one. Companies and high profile individuals have been using traditional reputation management and public relations firms to manage their reputations for decades. But the game has changed in the digital world, and one Oxford company feels that reputations don’t need to be managed, as much as they need to be engineered. Auctoritas promotes itself as a reputation engineering company that uses a proprietary system to ‘re-engineer’ online reputations for private clients and corporations. Auctoritas defines reputation engineering as taking the traditional PR practice of reputation management and adding in programming, marketing, social media, and strategic search engine optimisation.

Managing director Jean Paldan says, ‘The internet can make or break your business. For individuals, it can destroy your reputation. We work with our clients to ensure that the profile that they want is the profile that is found.’ No one can truly edit the internet or prevent people writing unfavourable stories but with online reputation engineering, it is possible to level the playing field, repair the damage, or better yet, prevent it.

The idea of online reputation ‘engineering’ is a controversial one. Almost utopian in conception, the internet was created as a platform for a free exchange of information. In a perfect world, politicians, celebrities, companies and individuals alike would always do what is right. Homophobia, racism and hate would not exist, and journalists would always write the unbiased truth. Unfortunately that is not the world that we live in. In a world awash with sensationalism, half truths and blatant lies, reputation engineering may be the counterweight on the internet scales of justice.

Chris Grimshaw is an Oxford-based freelance writer.

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