Online Reputations and Rabbit Holes

This week’s Persuasive Marketing blog comes from Pete Bartolik, a freelance writer/editor with whom I enjoyed and valued working with for many years.  I think you’ll see why.  Pete spent many years as a staff reporter and editor, followed by a virtual lifetime with a PR agency, before hanging out his own shingle.  Enjoy!

Back in 1987, Ray Donovan, previously Secretary of Labor under Ronald Reagan and the first sitting cabinet member to be indicted, was acquitted with other defendants from charges of fraud in construction contracts. Alluding to the flood of negative print and TV news stories that accompanied the original mob-tinged allegations, he was famously quoted saying, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

In today’s hyperactive blog environment, he’d probably feel like he’s falling – perpetually – like Alice down the rabbit hole.

When print still dominated, we’d counsel clients to expect to be misquoted or taken out of context, and develop a thick skin – plus, even when a publication printed a correction, odds are it would be seen by just a fraction of those who had read the original.

Blogs have vastly ramped up the delivery speed of information, and misinformation, and it now persists for all digital eternity.  More concerning is that the information can take many twists and turns as it traverses the Net echo chamber.

As a youngster you may have played the party game that goes under a variety of names such as “Whisper” or “Telephone” in which successive players pass along a sentence or phrase. By the time the content reaches the last person and is announced to the group, it inevitably has acquired a much different meaning.

Electronic social networks can take the Whisper game to extreme heights, with the potential for truly harmful reputational damage. You can’t afford to shrug off misinformation because it becomes part of your online “permanent record.”

Extreme alertness is the order of the day. Once a story or comment appears online it can proliferate with rapidity and continually resurface as later bloggers pick up on the original. So the best way to blunt the impact is to communicate quickly and directly with the original author to try and correct the record.

The folks who do the blogging for a living are generally pretty reasonable. Many will quickly update their online posting, sometimes just replacing erroneous information, or at least noting a required correction. The sooner you’re able to do this, the more likely you are to limit parroting of the damaging content.

But, still, work on developing that thick skin. It’s inevitable that even after you’ve got the right information online, somewhere down the line someone is going to resurrect the original damaging content. And their blog will tell two people, and they’ll each tell two people, and so on and so on…

Welcome to the rabbit hole.