Notice: This is not a training program that aims to tread lightly around ethical best practices, or an attempt to crusade with raised flags for right and wrong. Think of this book and coaching program as a consultative resource that sides with no particular tactic as the best solution, but allows the student to make educated decisions around the best options for a given situation.
Get the Mechanics of Online Reputation Management Book for full reputation concepts and strategies.
The individual or business seeking help or clarity may or may not be concerned with ethical boundaries, so this section exists as a means of providing perspective and potential justification for the tactical options available.
Reputation problems arise from as many unique scenarios and circumstances as there are people and business with the need for reputation repair. Usually, reputation problems originate from an event relating to misconduct or distrust, socially unacceptable behavior, or objectionable practices by an entity, so it’s important for every person and business to consider reshaping and adhering to their fundamental operating values and decisions.
Additionally, there are circumstances where the person or business did nothing wrong or harmful to anyone or any particular organization, yet they are negatively impacted by online editorial or reviews that may or may not be true information or an accurate reflection of the situation.
Take for example a company offering an exercise program for weight loss that produces results for those who do the exercises, but produces no results for those who do not do the program correctly. The people who do not implement the program correctly then go online and write negative reviews about the program, saying that it is a fraudulent scam, sending other potential candidates for the program away from the offer.
Another example might be an online commerce storefront that clearly states an “all sales are final, no refund” policy on purchases from their website, yet when consumers realize they cannot return their product for a refund they post negative comments about the company, claiming the company is run by thieves that stole the shopper’s money.
In medical practices, doctors who perform procedures on patients know that they must disclose risks to patients, yet it is not uncommon for the patient who encounters one of the fully disclosed risky outcomes of a procedure to go online and produce a blog about the doctor, suggesting they engaged in malpractice.
Outside the professional sector, individuals often become associated with another party’s conduct or behavior. For example, a publicly recognized executive at a financial firm becomes featured in a New York Times article about a lawsuit and government intervention on the firm because a partner at that firm committed tax fraud, and that executive now has that story associated with his personal name for life – even though he had no direct knowledge or involvement in the tax evasion or events leading to the lawsuit.
The wife of the uninvolved executive in the above fraud case now has her name associated with that story because the editor at the New York Times used a picture featuring the husband executive and the wife at a dinner party, with a caption saying “husband-name right, wife-name left”. This wife is a 2nd grade school teacher, now facing the loss of her teaching license because her husband’s partner in business committed tax fraud.
While these situations are all uniquely qualified for further consideration and justification, there are hundreds of similar circumstances like these that become a reality for people everyday.
People and organizations suffering from negative online reputations are often in a state of emergency, and some could be considered a state of danger. Individuals facing job interviews are afraid that their potential future employer is going to Google search their name (sometimes a recent high school or college graduate). Businesses operating with integrity are scratching and clawing towards any sign of hope and profit, but are plagued by the one negative article that appears in the top position of search, and will likely go out of business as a result.
Negative search content can act as a ball and chain, a social and professional prison, a lifestyle and business handicap, and a psychological stressor that can catastrophically debilitate a person’s ability to function properly in life.
The Internet serves as an automatic liability for any business and individual. Conversely, there is equal opportunity to engage in solutions for improvement and gain. Though it may not seem that way for those currently impacted from negative exposure, the reality is that the Internet is an equal playing field – it simply depends on how intelligently and aggressively one approaches the game.
In coming chapters, many liability scenarios and problems are explained in detail. For those considering reputation management services and strategies, it might be worth considering some risks surrounding proactive action and passive non-action.
Considering the typical state of emergency and burning desire people experience when facing a reputation problem, many are compelled to contract any company promising to provide a solution, or any strategy that seems to be effective in theory. As stated earlier, not all companies offering solutions today are properly positioned to provide effective or sustainable solutions, and many of them make an already bad situation worse. In fact, most so-called “reputation management companies” are not even companies, they are resellers of other agency services – agencies over which the resellers have no influence or control.
Reputation management services today often fall short of even the most fundamental best practices around website development, content marketing, news publishing, social media management, and search engine optimization. Frequently, a business or person contracts a firm for “reputation repair” and ends up with poorly written articles, unprofessional social profiles, low quality images, and unfavorable video content and embarrassing website properties showing up in the search results. Making it worse, the client wasted money and the negative content or review site that was the focus of the campaign is still positioned at the top of the search engine, maybe higher and more prominently visible than before the campaign started.
The receiver of reputation management services may be misled or unaware of tactics used by the firm they contracted for services. Many reputation management companies mass-post artificial content or use automated software programs to attack open website portals as a primary function of their strategy, framing their efforts with buzzwords like “content marketing” and “press release strategies”. Efforts like this may lead to further tarnishing of an entities reputation as they face the aftermath of negligence by the firm.
Inversely, the firm’s services may actually produce quality digital content, press releases, and useful media, but the reputation organization’s experience begins and ends with editorial efforts and has no true capabilities in achieving top placements in the search engines with the quality content they produce.
As many horrifying circumstances that exist in the reputation management service industry, there are a few great companies that perform amazing work. SwellMarketing.com has a 100% success rate in online reputation management campaigns (See “Done For You Services”). This book also serves as an effective guide to navigate an industry full of mis-perception and risk.
Passive non-action is an option, but at what cost? A typical wrong assumption by people needing reputation solutions is that not many people are seeing the negative content. This is rarely the case, and there are usually more sources of negative content visible than are readily observed.
Statistics of Internet user behavior and a thorough valuation of a positive online presence may serve as a means to justify a business’ or individual’s need for online reputation management. Situational severity varies wildly depending on the nature of the searched name, along with the type, sentiment, and volume of content visible in search results. Due to the rambunctious variety of situations and circumstances that lead to reputation problems, and the robust palette of management solution choices, casting a standardized ethical blanket on the entire industry could be considered morally reckless.
People with a strong adherence to normative ethics and moral standards may find the following principles helpful in a case-by-case approach to justifying reputation management tactics. Arriving at a short list of representative normative principles is itself a challenging task. The principles selected must not be too narrowly focused, such as a version of act-egoism that might focus only on an action’s short-term benefit, and those on opposing sides of an ethical issue must see the principles as having merit. For this reason, principles that appeal to duty to God are not cited since this would have no impact on a nonbeliever engaged in the debate. The following principles are the ones that seem most appropriate for ethical discussion around reputation management:
Personal Benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for the individuals in question.
Consequentialists would agree that moral discourse should be determined solely by the positive and negative outcomes from a reputation management strategy. Although there are layers of consideration involved in consequentialism, the general concept suggests that if the total good consequences outweigh the bad outcomes, then the action could be considered morally right. If the bad consequences were greater, then the action would be considered morally improper.
Social Benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for society.
A properly executed reputation management strategy may produce quality, useful, informative content for Internet users. Conversely, it may suppress content that serves Internet users with sufficient warnings and risk assessments necessary for healthy decisions.
Principle of Benevolence: help those in need.
Reputation management companies tend to use this exclusively as a means to justify selling someone reputation management services, regardless of their misconduct or the nature of the reputation problem.
Principle of Paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.
Reputation management may serve as a means to more effectively help people access a product or service offered by a company, or may assist a professional or person move on with their business of life. Reputation management companies may use this as a means to justify providing services to an individual or company in need of help.
Principle of Harm: do not harm others.
Measuring the potential harm to others as a byproduct of reputation management may be a difficult experiment to accurately calculate. Assessments of public impact and safety may be a concern, along with any damage or harm possible to websites involved with the contracted firm’s tactics.
Principle of Honesty: do not deceive others.
It is not uncommon for clients of reputation management services to have little to work with in terms of “positive” content to share or promote. By the very nature of lifestyle and business practices, many prospects are lacking in the areas of newsworthy or blog-worthy material. As a result, the fabrication of information is a common practice by reputation management firms as they “reach” for facts in their efforts to produce new content assets.
Principle of Lawfulness: do not violate the law.
Very few legal lines are clearly drawn on the battlefield of digital marketing and Internet conduct. Things like Copyrights, Trademarks, and Hacking are obvious red lights on the road to success, but people often cruise through these intersections without even knowing it. With or without clarified legal guidelines for web-based actions, the relationships between client and contractor often materialize into the greater risk.
Principle of Autonomy: acknowledge a person’s freedom over his/her actions or physical body.
Like doctors performing surgery on a patient, or a contractor renovating a home, service providers may choose to honor a client’s choices for the sake of capitalism. Under a different spin, a reputation service provider may apply an abnormal ethical hard line and honor the freedom of speech rights for users or journalists providing the negative reviews and editorial (highly unlikely).
Principle of Justice: acknowledge a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.
People suffering from reputation problems are often good people operating under a respectable code of conduct and have been unfairly attached to a problem. Like criminal attorneys and corporate litigators striking deals with opposing counsel and judges on behalf of their clients, reputation experts may choose to defend anyone who seeks their help.
Rights: acknowledge a person’s rights to life, information, privacy, free expression, and safety.
Get the Mechanics of Online Reputation Management Book now for full reputation management concepts and strategies.