What Anthony Weiner can teach us about online reputation management

June 16, 2011
chart of sentiment on Anthony Weiner

If there is one thing that we have learned over the past couple of weeks, it’s that careless use of social media can damage your reputation within a matter of seconds. Whether you are a person or business, politician or average Joe, given the chance, social media can be an equal opportunity reputation destroyer.

OK, so we didn’t just learn that over the past couple of weeks. We’ve learned it over and over again. So why do otherwise seemingly smart people seem to lose all traces of intelligence, or common sense for that matter, as soon as they log in to their favorite social media sites?

Could the false sense of security we get when we sit safely behind a computer make us fall victim to the “that only happens to someone else” syndrome?

Whether you’re a seven-term politician debating whether to send a college girl a shirtless picture of yourself in boxer briefs, or you are a business that understands the importance of proactively managing your reputation, there are a few things about online reputation management we can all learn from @RepWeiner.

Everything online is public. Everything sent privately online can be made public. Online communication has become such a natural part of our everyday lives that it’s easy to forget just how public the Internet is. But our world today consists of 24/7 news and opinion outlets, a thriving blogosphere, social networks, and precise record keeping through electronic communications. In this environment, it’s not unrealistic to believe that anything you post online can turn up on the front page of a leading newspaper, the lead story on network news, or a trending topic on Twitter. Probably all three.

Even though Weiner tried to delete the picture only four minutes after sending it, it was too late. By the time Weiner realized his mistake, the tweet and picture had been archived, saved, forwarded, retweeted, and was on Breitbart’s desk preparing to be reported.

It doesn’t matter if you are on the clock or off the clock, anything is fair game online. Today we live in a connected society that operates 24/7, forcing a convergence of our personal and professional lives. When it comes to reputations, whether yours or the company you represent, there is no “off the clock.” There’s also no undo, delete, or “c’mon seriously, take that down” button.

It states in the U.S. House of Representatives code of conduct that a member “shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” This should also be applied by any professional when engaging in online activity.

Some aspects of reputation management aren’t rocket science, they’re common sense. Do I really need to tell you that sending explicit pictures of yourself across the social Web can severely impact your reputation? I didn’t think so. But what if we’re not sending pictures, what if we are engaging a dissatisfied customer; chatting with an old friend on Twitter; giving an especially strong opinion about a breaking topic before knowing all of the facts; or simply putting an inappropriate comment on a public Facebook page?

Take a second and think about the very last person you would ever want to see your posts. Then, don’t ask yourself what happens if they see it, but rather what happens when they see it. If you don’t like the answer, red flags should be raised.

chart of sentiment on Anthony Weiner

*Based on over 50,000 online messages collected from over 45,000 traditional online media sources and over 150 million social media sources. Sentiment is based on a 10-point scale, ranging from +5 to -5 (represented on the graph above). +5 is the highest, most positive score and -5 is the lowest, most negative score. 0 represents neutral sentiment. This analysis was conducted by Gregory FCA, using data from Nielsen Online’s BuzzMetrics.

But what if you’re “that only happens to someone else” syndrome gets the best of you and you find yourself in a potentially reputation damaging situation? There are a few things that you should keep in mind while you’re in the process of becoming a trending topic on Twitter.

Tell the truth and stick with it. The most damaging thing Weiner did was lie about sending the pictures, claiming he was hacked. He even went on tour to the major news outlets telling the lie time and time again, hoping it would eventually be accepted as the truth.

By hiding the truth, you’ll not only quickly erode any goodwill you still have, but you prolong public dialogue. This also makes it impossible to develop an effective reputation management strategy. If you constantly have to backtrack and fill in the holes from previous versions of your story, you’ll never have the chance to tell the truth.

Which segues perfectly into my next point …

Be proactive. Stay on the offense. Look, the story is going to be told. The question is, “will you have first mover advantage by being on the offense?” The alternative is constant defense mode where you spend all of your resources correcting inaccuracies and answering questions that stem from the false version of your story. The story you allowed someone else to create and tell.

There is strength in offense. Weakness and disarray are comrades of defense. Proactive eats reactive for lunch any day.

Your reaction will be more telling than your original sin. As I stated above, Weiner upset more people by lying than by the act of sending the picture. Once the spotlight is on, every word you speak, tweet, or blog, and every action you take, don’t take, or delay taking, shapes public opinion. Make sure your actions align with your story.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to online reputation management, there are tried and true principles that apply across the board. Keep in mind that you are not just protecting your reputation in the short term. What happens online stays online. In five years when the world has forgotten completely about Anthony Weiner, he’ll still be trying to scrub Google search results of any evidence that points to this lapse in judgment. But you and I? Thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from Anthony Weiner, we have the opportunity to stay in control of our story and our reputations.

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