Sunday, August 12, 2007

NBC Today Show on Reputation Defense


On Sunday August 12, 2007 the NBC Today show had a brief presentation of the issue of online “reputation defense.” Ben Popken, (link here) ) from consumerist.com, appeared and criticized Reputation Defender and similar companies as compromising free speech. Sometimes webmasters have been asked to remove references to people’s names that had been printed in association with negative events in regular media and fact-checked in a regular way by the media. The theory seems to be that bloggers are “amplifying” the dangers to reputation to others because of the free entry into blogging, beyond what would have happened in the days that there was only print and television.

The broadcast also gave some tips. Major search engines offer “/alerts” that will send anyone an email whenever his name is indexed in a new search engine reference on the Internet. The broadcast suggested that persons be wary of things written about others with the same name as them. Many people have the same names (even same legal names with middle initial or muddle name) so it is easy for a “background checker” to mix up names. The risk is reduced or eliminated if bloggers and web authors document every reference to someone's name with a specific source in the regular media, one that could be fact-checked (by a background investigator) to verify identity.

As I have noted, it’s important for the Human Resources world and for colleges and grad schools to sit down and develop “best practices” if they feel that they need to gumshoe about applicants or employees on the Internet. Obviously much of what they find is wrong or can be about the wrong person, and there is a possibility of jobs being lost because of information about another person (but note the fact-checking step above). The ethics of this as an employment or admissions practice should be considered carefully. It’s rather shocking to me that any reputable employers would fall for this. Some industries and employers and some positions are much more sensitive to public or customer perception of individual employees than others; bloggers who work in areas not requiring contact with the public could affect the careers of people who do work in sensitive areas.

The broadcast also suggested that one can improve one’s reputation by creating a simple profile about oneself in one’s legal name and putting the resume or information that he or she wants seen. Most search engines will display this first. Many employers or others would then get the “right” and desire sartorial impression.

Companies have set themselves up to write and manage online profiles for professionals. Some employers may be starting to expect executives, managers and visible employees or agents to use these services.

It would have been desirable to have some members of the "reputation defense" industry on the program to comment.

This issue could be particularly serious for members of the Armed Forces because of “don’t ask don’t tell.” The effect could spill over into other sensitive areas like teaching.

Earlier postings on this problem were made at this blog on Nov. 30, 2006 and March 11, 2007, and especially March 7.

I do report facts from published and fact-checked stories. I do use discretion in reporting the names of people suspected of wrongdoing but not convicted of crimes. Sometimes the amount of material on a controversial individual will already be overwhelming so there seems to be no harm. I do not report strictly personal incidents (and the names of people associated with them) that have no newsworthiness or that would normally be confidential in a business or personal sense. I don’t take pictures of people in bars, dance floors, etc. just to publicize them. I do see a lot of cell phone photography (by others) going on at disco floors, however. Call it citizen paparazzi.

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