Managing Your Online Reputation

Once at a previous job I had a co-worker I’ll call Rob. Rob came to work constantly disheveled – dirty clothes, uncombed hair and face unshaven. One day a friend at work said, “Rob looks like he spent the night in a dumpster.”

It was a funny comment but it made me wonder, “Could Rob have a drinking problem?” My father was an alcoholic so I knew the warning signs. Rob fit them all. My curiosity piqued, I did a quick Google search and there it was – Rob’s DUI arrest in a local paper.

Fine, I thought, maybe he had one too many and drove when he shouldn’t have. But then I dug a little deeper and found an online review he wrote describing his home as his own personal bar. Now I knew I was working with someone with a serious problem.

Nothing ever came of this, Rob continued to work at the company until he left. But it did drive home to me how important your online reputation is. In a way, the internet has evolved to become your permanent record.

I’m not trying to scare you but things posted by you and about you online can have very real consequences. In the course of my career, I’ve known five people who have lost their job because of things they wrote online. In today’s world your online reputation precedes you – every HR department in America now does a quick Google search for your name before interviewing you.

Things aren’t all bad. I’d rather a world with the internet than without. The internet isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, it’s just a very powerful tool. Like a chainsaw, the internet can either be tremendously useful or tremendously destructive. It all depends on how you use it. How do you prevent yourself from getting burned? There are a couple of simple guidelines.

Guideline #1 – Don’t Be An Idiot

This is the simple one. Before you post anything online, imagine the person you’d least like to read what you are writing. It could be your mother, your brother, your employer, a co-worker or your friend. Now imagine that person reading it. If that thought horrifies you, don’t post it.

Information moves much too quickly these days to be contained. The cost of sending an email is essentially zero. Cutting and pasting a document takes seconds. If it’s best your message is not seen by a certain someone, **do not put it online.**

Another thing I would like to make clear on this – restricting your post to Facebook is not reasonable protection. Mark Zuckerberg would like nothing more than to make every photo and message you post available to everyone in the world. As Facebook has shown time and time again, it cannot be trusted to protect your privacy. Personally I’m blown away by how few people realize this. There are people I know where every photo of them on Facebook shows them holding a beer.

When you get a chance, take a good objective look at your Facebook profile. What image does it convey? Does this image fit your personality? My Facebook photo is currently me with my two daughters smiling at the camera. The image I think it gives off is “stable family man.” That’s an image I’m comfortable with and one I’d like to share.

Next to keep in mind, email has a “Send” but no “Retract” button. It is immensely satisfying to write something in a burst of anger, a furious tirade that sticks it to the man. Before you hit the send button, remember nothing good has *ever* come from a mad burst like this. I guarantee you will be filled with regret for this outburst. As bad as email is, Twitter is even worse. With Twitter not only are you broadcasting your thoughts impulsively but you are doing so on a world stage.

My recommendation? Vent and rage privately, share selectively. With email, I have spent hours composing furious responses. These emails would have the social impact of an atom bomb detonation and be about as constructive if I ever sent them. Which I don’t. After I’m done venting, I delete the email and forget it.

For Twitter I have a file on my desktop called “Tweets Never Sent.” Whenever a funny thought or insight pops into my head, I jot it down there. I don’t share this file with anyone. Writing it down satisfies the urge to share my thoughts and re-reading my thoughts is a joy. If I find a message the fills the basic safety test, I’ll post it to Twitter but only after careful consideration.

I really can’t stress this enough, the distribution of writing has never before been so cheap. Despite this it still retains it’s power. The pen is still mightier than the sword. Don’t cut yourself.

Rule #2 – Monitor What Others Write About You

Once a week I do a quick Google search on my own name. If you don’t already, this is a good habit to pick up. Everyone in the world is aware of the existence of Google. Their search results on your name are most likely going to be a strangers first introduction to you.

What to do with results that are less-than-flattering? This poses a special problem. Awhile ago I talked to a student at Harvard who was about to graduate and enter the job hunt. Her problem was she had a distinctive name (it was not something like “Jennifer Smith”) and there was an article about her in a newspaper about an embarrassing incident from her freshman year. This article showed up very prominently in a search for her name.

She’s not alone in this – we all have skeletons in our closet we would rather not have aired. There are two options when it comes to dealing with lousy stories about you. One, is write to the article writer and ask them to take it offline. If it’s a big enough deal and you want to pull out the big guns, hire a lawyer to do this.

The other option is the one I prefer, it’s called “flooding the pipe.” The concept is to replace the bad press with good press. Drown your critics with your own work. PR people have been doing this since media was invented. Fortunately it’s now easy to do this. For example, set up a website with a blog and publicize yourself. Set up a Twitter account. Setup a public Facebook page and YouTube channel. Join a volunteer organization and get active on it. Drown out the bad and replace with the good.

When John D. Rockefeller was demonized by the press as a soulless robber baron, he hired a team of PR people to film him giving dimes to little children. It worked. There’s no reason you can’t do the same on YouTube and have the potential to reach a larger audience than he did.

Despite these warnings, I want to reiterate the internet is not something to fear. The internet has provided me with a very satisfying career. I love being able to reach many people with my writing and work. I love the unprecedented access to information. Protecting your reputation online is a small concern in comparison but it is one you should be at least be aware of. Follow these two steps and you should be okay.