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How to restore a tarnished online reputation

My late mother used to say that your reputation was the only thing you ever really had.

In today's Internet world, when someone can learn about you in seconds, your reputation has never been more valuable – or vulnerable. But what should you do when your online standing has been compromised – either by mistakes you've made, or by the malicious input of others? You should defend yourself. And then you should promote yourself. You need to initiate reputation restoration.

When you've messed up

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I know business people who ran afoul of Canadian financial regulations some 20 years ago, and are still paying the price.

Wherever they travel in the world, potential clients and partners will of course "Google" them, read the news coverage of their long-ago malfeasance, and often squash a potential deal.

The business people may have lived exemplary lives for two decades, but it doesn't matter. They're judged as if their offences took place yesterday.

With the Internet, there is no past or present. There is only now.

Those affected by negative information have a powerful option. In addition to employing traditional public relations strategies, they can hire highly skilled search engine optimization (SEO) professionals who can employ techniques that promote positive content about the individual, lifting it to the first page of a relevant Google search – where more than 90 per cent of visitors click on a result.

What percentage of visitors go beyond page one? About 10 per cent.

With a reputation restoration plan, a client's accomplishments – big transactions, real estate developments, awards, charitable activities, donations, and athletic endeavours – get highlighted, while the negative stuff gets pushed down the line, where it's far less likely to be read.

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Will the negative information remain on the online record?

Absolutely. It has a place in the overall story, and if someone – a potential partner or employer – is determined to find it, it will be found.

However, at least now those who have had their reputations shaped primarily by their mistakes get to provide a more balanced depiction of their careers, and their lives.

When others are messing with you

Think of the Internet as the Wild West. There's not a lot of law and order around – the nearest sheriff is 100 kilometres away. You have to take care of yourself. You have to arm yourself.

A hundred years from now, historians will look back on the year 2012 and observe with wonder: "Anyone could go online and damage the reputation of another." Yet accountability is catching up with technology.

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Recently, an Ottawa restaurant owner was sentenced to 90 days in jail for conducting an online smear campaign against a food critic who posted a negative review of her establishment.

For now, the Internet remains a marvellous (if flawed) forum for dialogue, at least when those who are participating in the conversation are respectful of one another.

Certainly, anyone has the right to criticize your work, your product, or your service, if the commentary is expressed appropriately. Indeed, I (and I advise others to) engage online critics openly and courteously, if somewhat gingerly.

However, if the critical remarks become offensive, the response should be quick and definitive – with a report to your service provider, and a call to your SEO consultant. It's reputation protection time.

The future is promising

Communication is, or should be, about responsibility.

It's against the law to yell "fire" in a crowded theatre – and endangering the safety of others online should be no less egregious.

The suicide of cyber-bullied teen Amanda Todd has had sharp implications across Canada, including the business community, because it speaks to the issues of security of information, of technology, of reputation.

It's been said that out of bad can come good. Ms. Todd's death has energized the development of a protocol that, in future, will allow young people to recapture and bury odious online material so deeply that it would be like, according to a leading SEO consultant I work with, "finding a needle in a haystack."

Reputation restored.

Jim Gray is a senior associate with Sussex Strategy Group in Toronto, and heads the firm's reputation restoration practice. A speaker, and media and presentation skills coach, he is the author of How Leaders Speak. His second book, The Young Leader, will be published in 2013.

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