A friend has an issue with online reputation
July 3, 2013 2:23 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to damage-control, or manage an online reputation damaged by press coverage of an event stemming from youthful, bad-decision making?

A friend conducted an ill-advised prank that landed them a conviction and there are now hundreds of news stories online about it. The friends full name is used and connected with the act and charge. Searching their name easily pulls up the info. Obviously friend is now worried about future job prospects the and ability to live life after the social debt has been paid. How can I help them? What can one do both within practical means and in a "money-is-no-object" scenario?

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can't damage control something like this in the age of the Internet. For the rest of the time that humans walk the earth and have electricity, your friend will have done this thing, and his/her name will always be associated.

Friend needs to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction now by going out and doing awesome, positive things that will also get noticed, because those things will also live on forever. For instance: If your friend robbed or egged a women's shelter and that's the bad thing, friend needs to go volunteer at all the women's shelters, from a place of honesty and openness and "I know I did a bad thing and I'm trying to make amends."
posted by jbickers at 2:31 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is the coverage accurate? Then the best way to proceed is to own what he did and call it a youthful indiscretion. People really don't care so much about these things, provided they are actually in the past and not a continuing behavior. They used to say there is no permanent record. Well, maybe there is now, but nobody cares. And the people who do should probably be avoided.

Now, if the coverage is NOT accurate, he needs to do damage control. He can request that the legit news organizations correct their accounts of the story, and hope that they do. He can put a disclaimer on his website (or make a website specifically for this disclaimer) that explains what is correct and what isn't.

But the last thing he should do is try to hide it or SEO it out of existence. Because a quick background check will likely reveal it, and then it will (correctly) appear that he is hiding something. Which is a red flag.
posted by gjc at 2:34 PM on July 3, 2013

He could look into changing his name. A proper background check would reveal the old name, conviction, etc - but a quick google-ing would not.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:43 PM on July 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Run cross country to raise money for [cancer, MS, HIV, etc.] and get some well-placed people to report on it. Pay Google or some other service to float those stories to the top.
posted by resurrexit at 2:45 PM on July 3, 2013

The friends full name is used and connected with the act and charge.

Is the full name used Jane Bloggs or Jane Roe Bloggs? Because if the name used is First Last, I would professionally re-create myself as First Middle Last: new Facebook page, new Twitter account, new LinkedIn account, new firstmiddlelast.com domain, new name@firstmiddlelast.com email address. I would drop all old accounts so they become dormant and literally start my online identity over.

If the person has been identified as Jane Roe Bloggs already, I'd do the above with the name Roe Bloggs - burn it down and re-create it. He or she can tell future HR "The name on my birth certificate is Jane but I go by my middle name, Roe" if they get close enough to an offer or hire to make it relevent.

this is a better strategy than a full legal name change because you will not have to discolse "prior names" that will still be Google distinct. Even if money were no object, there's not much more that can be done but with time and dedication to the new identity, it will be effective.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:46 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Hundreds of news stories? I have a weird feeling that I know what prank you're talking about.

Anyway, I agree entirely with the proposal of changing of one's name. If this is an event of the magnitude that it garnered hundreds of news articles, it is likely that no amount of good works will completely eliminate the web's memory of this event and the associated stigma. If the event involved something that horrifies people, such as, say, animal abuse and mutilation, the stigma will be profound and will completely wreck this person's future with many if not most reputable businesses. And having a fairly unique name would just make the difficulties even worse. If it is something that is more of a youthful indiscretion, such as getting drunk and acting like a fool ... well, I'd expect the consequences of that to fade fairly quickly.

I can imagine some more serious misdeeds, even if they weren't discovered by the employer, would cause some activist-types to CONTACT the employer and let them know what a reprehensible scumbag they have working in their midst.*

So yeah, name change.

*See, for example, the Anthony Ciolli saga, where a guy ran a website full of abusive, sexist, racist, threatening content toward law students whose only crime was going to law school while having breasts or being attractive women, and Ciolli's response to requests for help from the victims was to mock, belittle and ignore them. He has been essentially run out of the continental United States, last I heard, having been rendered unemployable for his role in that horrible situation. The web will not forget Ciolli. See, I'm talking about him now.
posted by Unified Theory at 3:09 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Does your friend have any hobbies? Start a blog about one of them. Feed google positive stuff. It won't remove the news stories, but it'll at least dilute the frequency of them in a search and it might help to paint a better picture of your friend.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:26 PM on July 3, 2013

Become extremely active under his name as an innocuous hobbyist. Blog frequently, across many social networking platforms. Eventually, over time this will push down the crappy search results.

I had a friend who got paid doing this for evil corporations, so it can work.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:39 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't think of the exact search terms to google, but there are "personal public relations" companies that will go around using SEO to last page this stuff, filing obtuse DMCA and other legal complaints against pages talking about it until the host relents and takes them down, and other grey-area stuff to just bury whatever the item is. I remember one of them specialized entirely in just removing things from the internet by strongarming blogs/news sites/etc into dropping at the very least from search engine indexes the articles about these stories, if not outright redacting them or taking them down. Both with lawyers and other methods.

I feel like there was either a wired or vice article about these services a few years ago, but i can't find it right now.

You're looking for something like reputation management, or these variations therein.

I remember it specifically mentioning that these companies charge a fuckton of money, but you were asking for money is no object solutions...

These are the kind of services rich parents use to make their kids actions of poor judgement disappear. A government job background check(and i bet, really a clearance investigation) will find the stuff but the average joe hiring manager wont.
posted by emptythought at 3:52 PM on July 3, 2013

Follow darlingbri's suggestion; my first and last name are very common. Someone in my city with the same first and last name of the same age (and same month and year of birth) haunted me until I began using First Middle Last. Until I started using three names, the first two pages on google of my Firstname Lastname and city were criminal convictions, horribly sexist letters to the newspaper, and gun registry protests. Just an anecdote that this does work to separate search results.
posted by variella at 4:29 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If they've been convicted, it'll show up on a background check, and trying to hide it from potential employers is a waste of time and/or money. It's much better to own it and be able to control the spin. And, yes, doing other interesting things so that there is some presence on the internet besides "guy who did something dumb a few years ago" is good.

Attempting to pull stuff off of the internet, either through one's own efforts or through a reputation-manager, is a terrible idea. At best it probably won't work, and could end up backfiring horrifically (once upon a time, a few months ago, Google searches for "Jon Monsarrat" just turned up stories about how he was a creepy skeevoid. Now it turns up stories about how he's a creepy skeevoid who sues people who call him a creepy skeevoid).
posted by jackbishop at 5:25 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, your friend is better off taking responsibility in some way. Trying to bury a story can backfire as evidenced by the Swiss golfer Sherlyn Popelka who fled a DUI charge in the US.
A few months ago the news stories were getting buried by her own blog but this is no longer the case when you google her name.
posted by Snazzy67 at 6:05 PM on July 3, 2013

Change your name. People do it every day.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:25 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

In some jurisdictions name changes must be published in a newspaper. If your friend takes that option, they need to figure out the likelihood of the legal notices/classifieds turning up in search results. This is more of a concern if their new name is unusual, I think.
posted by hoyland at 7:38 PM on July 3, 2013

I heard an interview with a "reputation management" specialist on NPR. They said the main trick they use is to create dozens of online profiles with variations on the persons' name, all with convincing pictures/back stories. Basically it will look like you have a common name even if you don't. So even if the news articles are still highly ranked, it won't be clear that you are actually the same person. This doesn't seem like a difficult thing to do yourself.
posted by miyabo at 8:11 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really do not think a legal name change is going to do it because many, many employment screenings require you to state if you've changed your name. It is actually more stealthy and strategic to use Middle Last as there is no name change disclosure to make.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:48 AM on July 4, 2013

The fastest way (in my experience) to flood the internet with your name is to participate in chip-timed races. Even if your friend is not athletic, and has a good chance of finishing last, participation will flood front pages with results. If she's truly all over the web with her prank, it could take many many races to move those negative results down to 4th, 5th, or later pages, but if she starts now and runs a race every weekend for the rest of the summer and into fall, she could expect to see results.
posted by juniperesque at 7:04 AM on July 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Let me preface this by saying that I deal with these type of cases every single day so I can give you insider feedback and advice on this matter.

First off what your friend did must have been a major news story if hundreds of papers and editors wrote about it. If it is the same story that was just syndicated by 100 different websites then the problem is not as bad as you may think it is but you will now be battling the Google Autocomplete and Related Searches which is more difficult and expensive then fixing the actual search engine results.

resurrexit' advice to run and participate in charitable events is a great idea but with the wrong angle. If you are publicly coming out and saying that you made a mistake in the past but want to right your wrong you hold yourself accountable to what a search algorithm will see when people do stories on you and you end up creating a greater problem. For example: Your friend runs a marathon and donates to a church that he played a prank on. Now what happens is he gets some press but the writers are then backlinking to the old negative stories thus making those stories more prominent and being displayed both at the top of the search results and having more authoratative content with the negative words like "arrest" in the articles with your friends name.

Now the cheap way to solve this problem (and there is no cheap way to solve a major problem) is to work around the clock making relevant content around your friends name. This involves purchasing all of his/her domain names yourfriendsname.com, .net. org, .info, your-friends-name.com,net.org,info,co. Now that you have purchased all of these domain names you need to build these websites out with relevant, unique, and useful content. One website can be a biographical page, another one can have the resume, another can have photos from a trip, another one can feature your family, another one can be about somebody else who shares the same name. You must purchase hosting accounts for each of these domains and host the majority of them on different hosting accounts so Google does not think your trying to own the entire search rankings with similar sites all on the same server owned by the same person (makes logical sense if you type in Car Dealer you dont want the same website seen 10 times on page 1 right?)

Now that you have built out all of these sites (8 websites x 11.00 a site + 8 hosting accounts x 60.00 a year + time to build websites + time to create content = $568.00 ) you now need to create social media profiles, news releases, and resume sites to continuously knock this stuff off on top of that you may have to endure a link building campaign.

So the next phase would be create a public facebook profile, a public facebook fan page (make sure to moderate it to keep any negative posts about the prank off of it), create a twitter profile with your name in the url of the profile, then create a pinterest and flickr account. Load up lots of photos and be social. Pinterest works if you have more photos, like, and pin others photos followed by commentary then you can really excel in ranking that on page 1 of search results. Just takes time, the proper know how, and energy. Xing.com. Linkedin.com and a few others are great ( I can't give away all of my best sites to use sorry).

Next comes web 2.0 websites and blogs. You can start up your own blog farm with sites like wordpress.com, blogspot.com, tumblr.com, thoughts.com and so forth. These sites will be similar to you purchasing your own websites as detailed above but you do not have 100% ownership over these sites, they handle the hosting, and you gain some instant authority since they are put on something called a subdomain. Create these sites and you can use these sites to help anchor up and push up the websites that you have created yourfriendsname.com/net/org facebook profiles, etc..

Now that you have created all of these profiles, websites, and blogs you need to get them indexed into google and hope that they show up prominently above the negative search results. You can start by bookmarking them with social bookmarking websites such as stumbleupon.com and delicious.com.

If the search results are not fixed you have to rinse and repeat over and over and over again. There are over 300 changes each year in the algorithm and any day you can have the negative results coming back if the job is not done properly.

There is A LOT OF SECRET SAUCE stuff that I can't reveal publicly that are more advanced SEO methods to solving the issues for clients but I think I gave you a great overview of what it will take if your friend can not afford to hire a company because the work is not cheap and it's not easy to do. The example somebody mentioned above I looked at and was even contacted about solving but the cost to do so was in the $20-30k range to completely solve.

If you have any questions for me please post them below and I will be glad to try and help out as I am brand new to the metafilter community.
posted by profiledefenders at 1:06 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have seen the "bury it online (in terms of search results) by making other stuff come up higher ranking" advice previously and from folks who were very internet savvy. I think that's a good idea, though I wouldn't personally try to get too fancy or involved. (I think trying too hard can backfire, as noted above.) The name repackaging (like going by middle name instead of first) can also help. It has a track record of success. (Even metafilter uses a variation of that by offering the "brand new day" option.)

Historically, Vanessa Williams, who lost her Miss America crown when Penthouse published scandalous photos of her, managed to live it down well enough for Disney to eventually hire her to sing a theme song for one of their movies (I think Pocahontas). I think the short version is she kept working and stayed out of trouble. Eventually, with no additional scandals, it ended up not being focused on.

Madonna had nudes come out after she became famous. Her response was to the effect of "So what? Moving on." And it blew over. Nude modeling paid well, had flexible hours and let her both eat and pursue her career goals. She has had other controversy, like Pepsi pulled its commercials featuring her after she did a music video with burning crosses and other hot button stuff and I think she may have been arrested or something for her stage show being "obscene." It hasn't really stuck. As far as I know, she doesn't do drugs, isn't an alcoholic, etc and the kind of controversy she has had is viewed more prosaically these days as kind of "the price of fame/price of artistic expression" and it doesn't seem to have seriously curtailed her career or anything.

In contrast, Connie Francis was brutally raped and largely dropped off the scene for a number of years afterwards. Disappearing from the public eye helped get her known as "oh, yeah, that (former) singer that was raped." In fact, I could not remember her name, googled "singer raped" and her wikipedia page was the number one result. So she still gets famed that way, even though her wikipedia page indicates she is still working, etc. and mostly talks about her extensive career.

So I would say don't focus overy much on it (avoid the Streisand Effect). Chalk it up to youthful indiscretion. Behave and don't have any further scandals. Earn press coverage for accomplishments instead of hijinks. Eventually, it will drop in google rankings and people will mostly stop caring.
posted by Michele in California at 3:49 PM on July 5, 2013

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