Building Your Personal Brand Online

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It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that we are operating in a distrustful world, and that both companies and individual executives are subject to suspicion. In 2005, a worldwide Gallup poll found that 40 percent of people believe company leaders are “largely dishonest,” and a 2006 Watson Wyatt study says that only 56 percent of company employees believe their top management acts with honesty and integrity.

These are worrisome figures, given that senior executives worry a great deal about their companies’ reputations but may spend little time on their own. I, for one, am a highly educated and successful chief marketing officer, known for delivering stellar results for Citicorp, JPMorganChase, Time Warner and others. I figured my “rep” would take care of itself, and this non-strategy worked for nearly 20 years. Then an industry gossip blogger decided to make me his latest meal, and turned lies and innuendo into what became the top Google search results for my name. For months, I took what I thought was the high road and did nothing. Everyone who knew me said to ignore the Internet’s equivalent of graffiti on a bathroom wall. So I did. But when I began to get questions about this graffiti, I realized I was wrong.

The new high road
The Internet has changed reputation management forever. Where information used to flow slowly and in one direction (that is, from “us” to “them”), we now live in an age where anyone with an Internet connection can post anything they like, and that information will reach millions of screens in an instant. And not only can truth be a mere afterthought, but the Google algorithm actually rewards popularity—so the more sensational the information, the better.

Changed rules mean a changed game. Anyone with an interested constituency—whether it be shareholders, employers, competitors, an exclusive preschool you’re just dying to get your toddler into, or even a potential date—must take control of his or her own reputation online. Because if you’re not offering up honest, straightforward information about yourself, you not only do yourself a disservice but you’re also depriving these audiences of an authentic picture of who you are and what you stand for. Speaking out is the new high road.

Ten tips for building your reputation online
Like any blood sport, building your online reputation is a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the best way to go:

Build up content about yourself before you are put in a position where you have to respond to negative and/or untrue information. Here are some key steps you can take now:

  1. Monitor your online reputation. Create alerts at Google and Yahoo, so the search engines will send you an e-mail whenever new content that includes your name has appeared. Additionally, use RSS to sign up for subscriptions to sites that are most likely to mention you.
  2. Create a blog (or a web site with a blog element). Post to the blog religiously—at least once a week.
  3. Videos get high search engine rankings. If you speak at an event, or can make a presentation, have it filmed and posted on YouTube. Make sure your name is part of the video’s title.
  4. Ask allies and partners to post content about you on their own web sites, and consider becoming a regular contributor to someone else’s web site (e.g., an industry news site). Your byline will be picked up by the search engines.
  5. Consider creating multiple sites if you have enough information to divide into several topics.
  6. Maintain a friendly and frequent presence on industry blogs and message boards: You most certainly have something to add that will enrich the conversation. Plus, you are more likely to be welcomed into such a forum if there comes a time when you do wish to respond to something that’s been posted about you.

If inaccurate or troublesome information is posted to the Web, and you or your representatives are free to respond (e.g., you are not in an SEC quiet period or your counsel advises restraint), here’s how:

  1. Analyze the content and its source. Determine whether you feel the need to respond immediately or prefer to monitor the situation.
  2. Build up content. Proactively create or add content to your own web site and make sure it is search-engine-friendly. Consumers are more likely to use search engines first in a crisis, before they go to your web site for your side of the story.
  3. Assuming you’ve maintained a positive presence on key blogs and message boards, these communities are likely to be open to listening to you. Post information there. Let others be your ambassadors.
  4. Where possible and appropriate, post a notice that you are more than willing to attempt to resolve the crisis personally and without delay. Then try to take the first phase of the conversations offline.

Life (on the Internet) is unfair: Get over it
If any part of your brain is thinking (a) this won’t happen to me and/or (b) it’s ludicrous to respond to malicious or false information, I empathize, but can only offer my own experience and that of the executives and companies I now advise on the art and science of online reputation management.

It does happen, and your life will be infinitely more comfortable if you have already taken the simple steps toward creating your own authentic presence online. In a world where you are whatever comes up on the first page of Google, you’ve got to take charge—don’t leave the telling of your own story to any blogger, writer or media outlet having a slow news day.

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