For the past two years, I have been building a segment of my business around helping people with online problems. Striving to get negative content removed from search on behalf of my clients has been, without question, one of the most interesting things I have done in my 25-year career in public relations.
I gained interest in the practice due to a number of factors. Part of it was directly related to hearing an increasing number of online horror stories, and the other part of it has to do with my sometimes overly righteous personality. I have strong opinions about what is fair and what is unfair in life, and the Internet can be incredibly unfair. It enables people to say almost anything they want. The door to the online world is wide open for crazy people, mean people and folks with an axe to grind.
As I develop my own reputation as something on an online “fixer,” I have learned that a huge number of folks have issues with our digital world. The Internet plays a major role in how we are perceived, and many of the challenges facing PR professionals today have to do with online issues. Quickly and steadily, the two worlds are starting to collide.
By the way, it’s not always people who have done something terribly wrong who have online troubles. In many cases, folks find themselves in a bad spot because of an honest mistake or an act of immaturity that gets catalogued digitally. Though I hold client engagements in the strictest of confidence, there are some lessons to be learned from them, particularly if we change the names to protect the digitally disenfranchised.
Sometimes Google is on your side
One gentleman called me who was the victim of his own fame. He was a Silver Star winner in Vietnam, and he recently did a Google search and found his name and that of his military unit prominently displayed on a porn site. He was baffled and not amused.
Because I love my country and appreciate what our veterans have done for those of us who get to patriotically drive desks in the land of the free, I gave him some advice at no charge.
Google strives to give us the best possible search results, I explained. The brainiacs in Mountain View, Calif. want us to find what we are looking for when we search, not porn. To that end, Google has a section on its support site dedicated to this very thing. If your name or your business name is on a porn site (and a few other conditions are met), then Google will remove that page from its search engine. I pointed our war hero to this page. He filled out the form, and a few days later, the offending link was gone.
Sometimes private information gets published
A few weeks back, a very nice lady called me because she was dealing with something truly awful. Her grown son was killed a few years ago, but that day when she typed his name into Google, a listing appeared which included his social security number and birth date. So aside from having to deal with the loss of her son, she was very troubled that someone could very easily steal his identity. Again, sometimes in business, one just does the right thing. I directed her to another Google support page dedicated to preventing government issued identification numbers from being shared online. She submitted the offending link and it was removed from search results.
Sometimes things get blown out of proportion
A guy reached out to me a few months ago. We will call him “Anthony.” He was concerned about some pictures on the Internet. The images appear on the search results when you Google his nickname. His exact nickname isn’t important, but let’s just say it has some “gangster” qualities. Anthony, it turns out, has a very large asset of the personal nature, and there were many photos of him—and it—online on a variety of websites.
First, I said that I was sorry he was dealing with this but hey, there are worse things to be known for in life, right? Second I asked if any of these images are found online when someone searches his real name? He said no. But a girl he was dating, and wanted to continue dating, had found the pictures. He was embarrassed.
I leveled with him. There were 20-30 listings online which show these images. If we were to develop a plan to get these links removed, it would probably cost tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. Anthony is a young, blue-collar worker, and this was clearly not an option.
My advice was to, one, Ditch the nickname and two, ease and desist taking or allowing people to take pictures of his junk.
He didn’t like my advice about his nickname. “I can’t get rid of my nickname,” he implored. I asked why not? Apparently he had a lot invested in that nickname and a lot of folks know him because of it. Turns out that it was also his Facebook handle.
I gave it to him straight. “I understand you like your nickname, but anyone who searches for you online in the future may end up getting a lot more of you than you want,” I said. “And if Puff Daddy can become Sean Puffy Combs and then Diddy, and still be worth half a billion dollars, then you can drop your nickname.” Anthony took it under advisement.
Mainly, what I have learned is that people make mistakes and end up paying for it with negative search results for years to come. The punishment rarely fits the crime. Some situations require a digital response of a technical and forensic manner, while others can be solved if you know which knob to turn with Google. If it happens to you, hopefully there’s a self-help solution that doesn’t require an online fixer. John P. David is founder and president of Miami-based media relations firm David PR Group, and represents law firms, financial institutions, insurance companies and technology start-ups.. He also serves as a partner with online reputation management firm WebFactCheck.com, a website that enables businesses to effectively respond to negative internet posts.