Felony extortion charges were recently filed in Dallas against a man who purported to provide online reputation management (ORM) services, but threatened to undermine a client’s reputation as a way of demanding payment. It isn’t the first such incident. The episode highlights the unregulated nature of this industry, and some of its dangers. While protecting and managing one’s online reputation is becoming increasingly vital for businesses and individuals, it’s necessary to proceed with caution and discretion when seeking help.
The Dark Side
In her 2013 Forbes.com post “The Dark Side Of Reputation Management: How It Affects Your Business,” Snapp Conner PR’s Cheryl Conner warned of “mugshot extortionists,” which NPR has also investigated, and other questionable and sometimes unlawful practices. In June 2013, Graeme Woods’ investigative article, Scrubbed: The World of Black-Ops Reputation Management, was published in New York Magazine.
Some companies offer to remove explicit photos or phony reviews from websites like Google Places, Yelp and Angie’s List—a promise that is often impossible to keep. Even Yelp itself has faced (unverified) accusations that it “filters out positive reviews and allows negative ones through, particularly if the restaurant in question has refused to purchase advertising,” according to Eater.com.
How to Avoid Such Practices
How to avoid such deceptive practices? Be sure to focus on trusted and verified sources when researching a firm with a specialization in online reputation management. Know the difference between reputation management, online reputation management and SEO (a tool of ORM).
I encourage consumers to check the provider’s online information to see if they address your specific goals and are experienced in servicing your sector. Evaluate whether they specialize in a niche – including your area – or are generalists. Understand what ORM is and whether the goals you want addressed are possible – or can be guaranteed. If not, make sure you know what to expect.
Be Wary of Guarantees to Remove Content
“If an ORM company contacts you directly offering to delete or eliminate a bad review or demote the review for $X dollars, don’t take them up on the offer,” advises interactive media agency Small Screen Producer. It is very unlikely they can make such content simply disappear. Instead, ORM firms focus on reducing the impact that negative or misleading information from third parties will have on your online image. Such strategies can include moving down unwanted content onto lower pages. But it can return to prominence within weeks if continuous maintence is not applied.
In a world of waning industries, online reputation management is booming. So are consumer misunderstandings about what the practice entails and what results you can expect.