An article posted today on CNN is horrifying – but not surprising, at least not to readers of this blog.

Juicycampus.com (which at the time of this writing is at the URL of the same name) is a well-trafficked online destination on the campuses of nearly 60 colleges in the US.  A little digging reveals that a number of posts have been viewed “hundreds and even thousands” of times.

Juicycampus.com is a site where anyone can say anything about anyone anonymously, and they do. Boy do they ever. Racism, sexism, religious discrimination and homophobia run rampant on the site, as do specific anonymous accusations targeting individual students regarding their behavior in and out of class, their sexual habits, etc. A Loyola student openly threatened to shoot up the campus, encouraged by the site’s free-for-all environment. The site has proven so “poisonous” there have been calls to have it taken down.

Others have tried to take legal action. Two Yale Law students are pursuing autoAdmit.com – an online discussion forum for those applying to law school – for what they say are libelous comments added to the site in 2006 and 2007.

Good luck. Under U.S. law, sites generally bear no responsibility for what users post, and content is protected as free speech. Juicycampus.com goes so far as to direct users to free online services that cloak IP addresses, so one’s comments can never be tracked back. Its privacy policy explains that the site logs users’ IP addresses but does not associate them with specific posts. This policy is out of the mainstream but perfectly permissable and legal.

In other words: if you write a letter or sue – and therefore are willing to draw even more attention to a problematic situation than the original content did – a Court may be literally unable to force a site to reveal the identity of a poster even if it wanted to do so.

The article says that many schools consider the site to be “poisonous” and that students are worried about the effect the site might have on their job prospects. They should be. According to Execunet, 77% of recruiters use search engines to find out about job candidates, and 35% have eliminated a candidate based on information found on the web. And a useful working assumption is that – unless the content is removed from the site – it will be searchable (and findable) forever.

This topic gets Marketing Mojo worked up, as readers well know – particularly because there are things every person can do to proactively build his or her own “personal brand” reputation online. Doing so not only communicates your authentic story to the world, but – if negative content should appear – will act as a crucial counterpoint that, nurtured properly and over a long period of time, can and will prevail.

I was recently invited by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC.com) to write a piece on this topic. The article is available only to IABC members. Below is the article in its entirety, available outside the IABC only to Marketing Mojo readers.


BUILDING YOUR PERSONAL BRAND ONLINE
by Stephanie Fierman

Low Trust Sets The Stage
It would not surprise you to know that we are operating in a low-trust world, and that both companies and individual executives are vulnerable. In 2005, a worldwide Gallup poll found that 40% of people believe company leaders are “largely dishonest,” and a 2006 WatsonWyatt study says that only 56% of company employees believe their top management acts with honesty and integrity.

These are worrisome figures, given that senior executives worry a great deal about their companies’ reputations but may spend little time on their own. I, for one, am a highly-educated and successful Chief Marketing Officer, known for delivering stellar results for Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Time Warner and others. I figured my “rep” would take care of itself, and this non-strategy worked for nearly 20 years. Then an industry gossip blogger decided to make me his latest meal, and turned lies and innuendo into what became the top Google search results for my name. For months, I took what I thought was the high road and did nothing. Everyone who knew me said to ignore the Internet’s equivalent of “graffiti on a bathroom wall.” So I did. But when I began to get questions about this “graffiti,” I realized I was wrong.

The New High Road
The Internet has changed reputation management forever. Where information used to flow slowly and in one direction (that is, from “us” to “them”), we now live in an age where anyone with an Internet connection can post anything they like, and that information will be available on millions of screens in an instant. And not only can truth be a mere afterthought, but the Google algorithm actually rewards popularity – so the more sensational the information, the better.

Changed rules means a changed game. Anyone with an interested constituency – whether it be shareholders, employers, competitors, an exclusive pre-school you’re just dying to get your toddler into or a even potential date – must take control of his or her own reputation online. Because if you’re not offering up honest, straight-forward information about yourself, you not only do yourself a disservice but you’re also depriving these audiences of an authentic picture of who you are and what you stand for. Speaking out IS “the new high road.”

10 Tips for Building Your Reputation Online
Like any blood sport, building your online reputation is a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the best way to go: build up content about yourself before you are put in a position to have to respond to negative and/or untrue information. Here are some key steps you can take now:

1. Monitor your online reputation. Create alerts at Google and Yahoo so the search engines will send you an email whenever new content has appeared that includes your name. Additionally, use RSS to sign up for subscriptions to sites that are most likely to mention you.

2. Create a blog (or a frequently updated and optimized website). Post to the blog religiously: at least once a week.

3. Videos get high search engine rankings. If you speak at an event, or can make a presentation, have it filmed and posted on YouTube. Make sure your name is part of the video’s title.

4. Ask allies and partners to post content about you on their own websites, and consider becoming a regular contributor to someone else’s website (e.g. an industry news site). Your byline will be picked up by the search engines.

5. Consider creating multiple sites if you have enough information to divide into several topics.

6. Maintain a friendly and frequent presence on industry blogs and message boards: you most certainly have something to add that will enrich the conversation. Plus, you are more likely to be welcomed into such a forum if there comes a time when you do wish to respond to something that’s been posted about you.

If inaccurate or troublesome information is posted to the Web and you or your representatives are free to respond (e.g. you are not in an SEC quiet period or your counsel advises restraint), here’s how:

7. Analyze the content and its source. Make a determination as to whether you feel the need to respond immediately or prefer to monitor the situation.

8. Build up content. Proactively create or add content to your own website and make sure it is search-engine-friendly: consumers are more likely to use search engines first in a crisis, before they go to your website for “your” side of the story.

9. Assuming you’ve maintained a positive presence on key blogs and message boards, these communities are likely to be open to listening to you. Post information there. Let others be your ambassadors.

10. Where possible and appropriate, post a notice that you are more than willing to attempt to resolve the crisis personally and without delay. Then try to take the first phase of the conversations offline.

Life (On The Internet) Is Unfair. Get Over It.
If any part of your brain is thinking (a) this won’t happen to me, and/or (b) it’s ludicrous to respond to malicious or false information I empathize, but can offer only my own experience – and those of the executives and companies I now advise on the art and science of Online Reputation Management.

It does happen, and your life will be infinitely more comfortable if you have already taken the simple steps toward creating your own authentic presence online. In a world where you are whatever comes up on the first page of Google, you’ve got to take charge – don’t leave the telling of your own story to any blogger, writer or media outlet having a slow news day.

NB: As of June 2009, Juicycampus is out of business.  Unfortunately, its URL boasts a farewell message that redirects to yet another site that supports anonymous college posting. 


 

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