Preserving Your Legacy Begins Online

The following article was featured in today’s issue of The Legal Intelligencer and written by vice president of Bellevue Communications Group, Jeff Jubelirer

Preserving Your Legacy Begins Online

Jeff Jubelirer, The Legal Intelligencer

June 23, 2015

I’ve written regularly about communicating before, during and after crises in these pages. While new technologies and external events continue to change the environment in which we work and live, the basic tenets of crisis communication have generally remained stable: Respond and take ownership of your or your client’s mistake if necessary; say what you’re going to do to ensure that the mistake doesn’t happen again; and provide a vehicle (a phone number and website) for your audience to learn more or ask questions. Perhaps it’s now time to add a new tenet: Determine the potential for damage resulting from your mistake to your online reputation.

When a crisis—real or perceived—occurs, the Internet becomes the first place journalists, investors, employees and customers go to learn more. The problem is the Internet is like the Wild West. The rules that govern modern society don’t apply. It doesn’t matter if you’re not liable, were found innocent, or weren’t even involved. If blogs and Facebook posts are calling you out and assessing blame, guess what? You’re guilty—certainly in the court of public opinion, which, frankly, can be more detrimental than losing a verdict in the court of law.

Here’s a case in point about a crisis that never should have occurred.

I got a call from a school principal in a panic. He’d been fired. The gentleman was shopping in a mall and was wrongly identified as a thief who stole sunglasses from one of the stores. He was arrested, pleaded innocent and got a court date to contest the charges. Time was not his friend. A local TV station and newspapers learned about the incident. Both reported on it, highlighting that the accused was formerly a principal at a local school. The stories were posted on the news outlets’ websites and social media pages, and quickly rose to the top of Google’s search engine page when his name was searched. It didn’t matter that he was later found innocent and the store apologized for the mistake. His reputation was in flames. He couldn’t land another principal job. Why? Because human resources personnel at the schools he applied to all looked him up online and found the damaging stories. Online, there are no “do overs” or ombudsmen to filter out inaccurate stories.

The permanent digital mark left by the Internet can mean not only the difference between getting hired and not, but the difference between the successful closing of a new deal, the decision to close a firm and much worse. So what can you do?

First, in the course of your everyday business, online and social media monitoring should be part of your personal or organizational communications strategy. This can be done through free tools such as Google Alerts and Hootsuite, or more robust paid services like Meltwater. Initially monitoring your online presence for the first time during a crisis is unwise. You’ll likely be swimming against the current tide of public opinion. Set up your monitoring system now so that you can adjust your search terms if necessary and learn what’s being said or written about you or your clients.

Second, you can take a further step by engaging in a search engine optimization campaign. SEO is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine. I would add that it can also result in minimizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears lower on the list of results returned by a search engine. For example, if personal attacks or damaging lawsuits are prominently displayed on the first page of Google search results, you can undertake a number of steps to push down this negative content.

Third, regularly work to distribute good news and positive social media posts about your work, firm and community involvement. You need to “paint the Internet canvass” with good stories that populate the search engines, so if and when bad news emerges, it has a harder time being seen.

Sure, negative online stories can be mitigated and, in some instances, removed, but this process can be expensive, time-consuming and is not always possible. That’s why it’s critical to understand your online vulnerabilities before a crisis emerges. Better to deal with the Internet before it becomes your legacy’s judge, jury and executioner.

Jeff Jubelirer is vice president of Bellevue Communications Group. He leads the development and execution of his clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.