UC Davis, one of the 10 campuses in the University of California system, is under fire for spending $175,000 on online reputation management to “clean up” its search results. In 2011 campus police pepper-sprayed students protesting a tuition increase. The resulting photographs and videos were shocking — and have become top-ranked Internet content for UC Davis ever since.
Since The Sacramento Bee broke the story, Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post and countless media platforms small and large have reported on it as well. (The Sacramento Bee’s coverage includes the publication of the contracts with the online reputation firms.)
Many factors contributed to this train wreck. With the goal of helping readers avoid such a public relations nightmare, here is our take on why UC Davis got into this mess—and what they should have done differently.
Don’t be a misinformed consumer
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to be an informed one.
For years, consumers have been misled by the online reputation management (ORM) industry’s use of advertising that implies fast, instant and sure results. Google “online reputation management” and these phrases will appear:
Guaranteed! Fast, easy! We specialize in scrubbing your Google results! Want to whitewash your Google results? Hire us! Don’t let one bad review destroy your reputation!
Not all online reputation management firms use that kind of marketing. But that is how many ORM firms that target a broad public have advertised.
The most effective ORM involves a range of approaches, and won’t be fast or easy. But it also won’t further damage your online image with low-quality content and ethically questionable attempts to manipulate search results.
What else could UC Davis have done?
A campaign to improve UC Davis’ search results would require a year or longer. It would be very difficult to move the pepper-spray photographs and videos down in search results—they are on the Internet’s highest-ranking platforms. By publishing new content that is just as highly ranked, though, an ORM campaign might counter-balance them. The pepper-spray incident will no longer dominate search results, but they will still be present on the first page of results.
UC Davis should have started by launching a video series that addresses their errors and describing how it could and should have handled the protest. It should have created a YouTube channel specifically for that purpose and then conducted a series of video interviews with students and UC Davis leaders to include all points of views. This material could be widely shared on social media. We would have recommended UC Davis also commission an independent documentary film to tell the story and put it into a historical context, with takeaways at the end to help other institutions understand how to avoid similar crises.
It’s a policy decision
To consider this approach, UC Davis would have had to have been informed that nothing would dramatically change their current search results. Then, the leadership would have had to agree to apologize for the error. A legal team would need to evaluate all of those steps (and would probably advise against it). Heads might have rolled. The Chancellor may have had to step down.
What would result from this strategy? Extremely high-ranking online content. National news stories. Substantial social media sharing. Done well, it could equal the current search results. UC Davis could turn lemons into lemonade by establishing an annual conference to examine and shed light on best-practices for supporting student protests and utilizing them to make policy changes.
This strategy would have been authentic and transparent. It would not erase the 2011 content. But it would position it (correctly) as a crisis the university has learned from and faced head-on.
The ethics question
It is being reported that UC Davis’s online reputation tactics have necessitated communications budget increases. Considering that the initial protest was against tuition increases, that is a reputational catastrophe. Furthermore, public attention has focused on the ethics of trying to erase unflattering content.
Online reputation management can be undertaken in an ethical way. The first step is for the ORM industry to stop making false claims about what it can do, and how. The second is for consumers to educate themselves about the practice so they understand their options. There are no tricks and gimmicks to magically wipe away high-ranking Internet content. It is possible to achieve that, but not in cases such as this. ORM is always a long-term undertaking.
It is also impossible to hide the truth on the Internet. The more visible an organization is and the more the issue of ethics is involved, the more likely it will come out.
So if you face a crisis, look at how to make the truth the bedrock of your reputation management approach. It may be painful, but the first step is often acknowledging and apologizing for an error.
When you interview prospective providers, ask if they will be available to advise you and your team in person, to guide you in implementing best-practice reputation repair strategies in-house. This adds privacy and eliminates detailed contracts and reports. It is less profitable for reputation management firms, so not all offer this option.
Using an attorney to represent you adds another layer of privacy.
We publish The Essentials: Online Reputation Management FAQ to educate consumers.