by: Brian McHale, CEO, Marca Global
When you find negative content about you or your company online, knowing the right way to defend and define yourself online can be tricky. If you rely on a reactive, passive approach, your efforts will be too little, too late. The damage to your brand will be hard to overcome. If you move too aggressively and go overboard with your public response, you might alienate people or invite further negativity.
As you search for a balanced strategy—being proactive but also knowing when to use silence and a less-is-more approach—it’s helpful to look at real-world examples.
The following three stories of individuals will provide a nuanced glimpse at how to defend and define yourself online:
- In the first story, a CEO who is slandered online by her former company. She must learn how to artfully launch a proactive social media approach while also working behind-the-scenes to find allies in the industry who are willing to speak up for her publicly.
- In the second story, an honest, hard-working lawyer finds himself in the middle of a firm with serious ethics violations. He must find a way to distance himself from the firm and use the negative situation to launch something that’s not only positive for his career but helpful for the legal community.
- In the third story, a successful, on-the-rise investor discovers with dismay that his past struggles with alcoholism (and some of the embarrassing incidents caused by those struggles) have reached daylight in the news media. Although he successfully overcame his alcoholism and turned a new leaf, he must fight to defend and define his reputation online. He is already very active in social media, so it’s not a question of expanding platforms or increasing content. His challenge is to change his fundamental approach to social media and take a quality-over-quantity approach.
1. The Executive Who Was Defamed
After a CEO was fired by her company’s board for unspecified reasons, she began the painful but necessary task of leaving a company she had worked hard to build. She contacted an executive recruiting agency to help her find a good fit for a new job and began researching potential opportunities on her own.
To her dismay, her recruiting agency was not getting any interest. Month after month, they’d come back to her with no interview offers. She decided to try a different agency, so she began to research ones that might do a better job for her. After an evening of researching online, she was tired and began to meander on the internet. She wondered how her previous company was faring, and she went to the company’s blog.
And that’s when she found it.
About four weeks prior, the company had quietly published a blog post about her that provided some details into their reasons for firing her. Although there had been strife between her and the board—particularly between her and one individual on the board—she had been a well-liked CEO by the average employee at the company. The board knew that, and apparently, they felt a need to justify their decision to their employees.
As she read their reasons, her face turned pale. She could feel her pulse racing. She was horrified.
The company accused her of:
The truth about her character and conduct could not have been more different. And as she thought about it, she suspected one particular controlling board member was likely behind the accusations.
- Unreasonable compensation expectations.
- Undermining board governing authority.
- Insisting on out of the norm “golden parachute” provisions.
The First Allegation
For one thing, her salary had been based on a market survey conducted independently that examined peer companies of similar size. Her salary was at the 50th percentile of the current market rates. It was a fair compensation across the market, but it was higher than what previous CEOs had been paid at the company. She had been aware of this and wanted to be sensitive to many of the company’s non-executive employees who were going through a difficult time financially. The small city where many of them lived had suffered flooding and many families had lost their homes. She had initially agreed to a lower salary at the 44th percentile, but the controlling board member did something odd. At the eleventh hour, he launched a persuasion campaign to bump her salary to the 50th percentile. He listed all of her accomplishments and made a convincing, heartwarming case.
At first, she resisted it and only agreed to it after securing a commitment from the board to give every employee in the company a much higher bonus that year and a pay increase the following year. The company’s blog post never mentioned this and implied that she had pushed hard for her increase on her own and had nothing to do with the bonus payment or pay increase.
Did the controlling board member increase her pay, then set her up for the accusations that he knew would be coming later after she was fired? She began to suspect as much.
The Second Allegation
The second allegation only deepened her suspicions. That particular board member had approached her to do some research into creating a new product for the company. He wanted it to be on the down-low, more of a side-project until its viability was determined. She had always been great at identifying up new products, and his technical background and insight it would be a valuable shortcut to determine viability. Did he set her up through the appearance of unsanctioned work that normally would have board visibility.
The Third Allegation
The third allegation was untrue. She knew it was the company’s general counsel, a good friend of the controlling board member, who had created the “golden handcuff”provisions and was advocating for the longer severance packages.
Besides any obvious courses of litigation, she needed to take immediate action to defend and define her personal brand online. A business news site that catered to her niche industry had mentioned and shared the company’s blog post. The wildfire of rumors had already started. This helped explain why no company would touch her with a ten-foot pole after she began working with an executive recruiting agency.
If she wanted to save her career and keep working, she needed to fight the rumors online and rebuild her damaged reputation.
And though her company had fired her, she didn’t want to see it crash and burn. The selfish actions of the board member not only sullied her reputation, it was casting a dark shadow over the company. After pouring her heart and soul into the company’s success, seeing people talk about it so negatively was hard. She knew what the study by the University of South Carolina said:
“When something negative happens to a CEO’s reputation, the negativity quickly transfers to the company’s reputation.”
It was a lose-lose situation for everyone, except the board member who plotted against her and successfully campaigned for the company’s general counsel to become the CEO.
How the Executive Responded
After she discovered what her former company had been saying, she did not waste any time. Her initial goal was simple: increase the visibility of her online presence and responses to at least match the visibility of the company’s communications. So she did a few simple but effective things:
- She created a blog and wrote a concise but persuasive article rebutting the company’s claims and defending herself. She concluded her defense by listing the positive things she did for the company that demonstrated how unlikely it would have been for her to do the things the company claimed she did.
- Then, she found former employers and other colleagues in the industry who knew her well and were willing to go on the record to defend her. She placed these quotes at the end of her article like the book endorsements an author would place at the end of a press release.
- And she used this article as her foundational link online—the primary link she would be sharing in her online campaign. She updated all of her social media bios to include this link.
- She expanded her social media to include any platforms she had not used. For example, she had a profile on LinkedIn and Facebook, but not Twitter or Instagram.
- After all of her social media accounts were created, updated, and ready for her campaign, she began to proactively search for every mention online of her company’s claims about her on each platform. She left respectful, professional but firm comments on websites and on social media posts defending herself. And she always linked back to her article on her blog.
- The people who went on record to defend her agreed to post and share her social media posts and make statements defending her online.
- Finally, she appeared on a podcast and a vodcast (video podcast) that were popular in her industry and answered questions about the claims. She made sure her article link was mentioned in the interview and in the podcast’s webpage.
A Proactive Response with Reputation Management Professionals
It was a tiring process, of course, and in some cases, she missed some comments that her company made online about her. Ultimately, she invested some money in the effort and hired experienced reputation management professionals who had the technology and know-how to uncover every stone online and create additional strategies to bolster her initial effort. It took time and work, but eventually the positive content online about her personal brand outweighed the negative. The momentum online was pulled in her direction, and eventually, her reputation was improved. She got a job heading a new, fast-growing company. In fact, some of the passionate defenses by her allies online served as references for her new job.
2. The Lawyer Who Stumbled Into a Perfect PR Storm
A talented lawyer found himself ascending in a large firm. As he got closer to the highest ranks he began to notice irregularities in the firm’s handling of its finances. He conducted a quiet investigation behind the scenes and discovered evidence that the firm was mishandling client funds, committing fraud and forging documents.
What the Lawyer Did Next
It was a difficult decision. However, the corruption seemed to involve the majority of the partners. So he decided to resign and submit a complaint to the state bar. When an official criminal investigation came about and the situation became public, he was quick to do interviews with law publications about the case. He also did some research about where the law firm had been most visible on social media. And then, he created accounts on those platforms and began posting links to his interviews with the media. In addition, he also started a blog about whistleblowing at law firms. And he became known as a thought leader on the topics of integrity and ethics in law.
In the end, three out of the four partners were convicted and left the law firm. The fourth partner was not involved in the fraud. The one who remained rebranded the firm, essentially starting a new one. And they hired the whistleblowing lawyer to help rebuild the firm’s reputation. Even though it had a new name, journalists knew it was the old firm re-born, and skepticism was prevalent online. The whistleblowing lawyer knew there would be a hangover effect. And so he maintained a regular schedule of media outreach indefinitely to help the firm’s reputation. This also strengthened his personal brand.
Not every whistleblowing story ends so happily for the whistleblower. But, the key to this lawyer’s success was being proactive by creating influential social media and blog content. He leveraged the bad situation as a platform to launch an effective thought leadership role online.
3. The Investor With a Past
An influential investor who lived in a hot spot for tech investment had a troubling past. When he began attracting media attention for some high profile investments, journalists dug a little and found his troubling history. For a few years after college and before he was serious about investing, he was a violent alcoholic. He was charged with assault at a bar. And there were also rumors about his troubled marriage because of an incident of domestic violence. The latter incident, which almost cost him his family, shook him to the core and he finally sought help. He was able to become sober and rehabilitate his relationships. He was now a hard-working, successful investor. His family was happy and supportive of him. And his life was finally free from the personal demons of his past.
But not in the eyes of the media.
The truth about his past was out—not only in professional circles but also publicly in online articles covering his career. Unfortunately, the coverage magnified the negatives and all but ignored the positives. The publication that most aggressively ran the story had a personal dislike for him, though he did not know why.
How the Investor Overcame the Negativity
The investor was already active online in blogs, interviews, and on social media. But up to that point, his posts had been all business, no personal content. Besides aggressively (but calmly and professionally) responding online to every negative attack by highlighting the many positives of his story—that he was able to break free from alcoholism and rebuild his relationships—he opened up about his personal life. He was protective of the privacy of his family. But with their permission, he began to post pictures of his family life (i.e. vacation photos, heartwarming candid moments).
Most importantly, he did not mention the negative news stories about his past when he shared these pictures; he simply let the world see the joy and restored relationships he was enjoying in his family life. Eventually, the public understood that his story was actually a positive one, not a negative one. Many people who had struggled with alcoholism themselves became sympathetic toward him. And the public opinion turned against the news outlets who were attacking him.
The investor was already very proactive online. But he had to change his approach and content to counteract the false narrative of his life online. When he became vulnerable and shared the truth about his past and restored life, people rallied to his defense.
Be Proactive, Invest in a Comprehensive Strategy
Whether you are defending and defining your personal brand or your company’s brand online, a successful strategy will always be proactive and comprehensive. These efforts must be tireless. There’s too much at stake. Negative public perception can damage a company’s revenue, hinder its ability to attract quality prospective employees, and potentially ruin the company. Defending and defining your valuable reputation online is not a short-term campaign. It’s an indefinite task that demands maintenance for the life of the company and your career.
About Marca Global
Founded in 2015, Marca Global LLC provides online reputation and privacy services through proprietary technology solutions. The firm was ranked #538 on the Inc. 5000 fastest growing company list and has garnered recognition from TopSEOs, Forbes and was listed as one of the Top 250 Private Companies in Colorado.
Reputation Sciences has advanced technology and years of experience in protecting, defending, and defining personal and corporate brands. It can be a monumental task defending and rehabilitating your reputation, but we know how to get it done. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you define yourself online.