Reputation Management: I’ll have a Big Mac, Large Fries and Coke with that, please.
By the time this blog was published (6:44pm, Aug 3), the embattled Ellen DeGeneres still had a job with NBC, although the sharks are circling and she’s all but stated that she’s done. Her show will be canceled in the next 48 hours.
DeGeneres, whose net worth is a reported $330 million ($84 million/year), is just the latest celebrity to face the reckoning of a cancel culture war brewing in workplaces across the world. Forbes’ Senior Arts Contributor, Dani Di Placido (@Dani_Di_Placido), nailed it perfectly this week in a piece entitled The Dramatic Fall Of Ellen DeGeneres Marks A Shift In The Way We See Celebrities and how the curtain has been pulled on Hollywood by a public that has lost its “blind trust and admiration” for celebrities. Ellen will take a hard hit financially, but the truth is the mega-rich and famous hardly live by the same rules and standards of reputation we do because…their wealth allows it.
Reputation management companies, some of whom I’ve worked with, are popping up all over the world. They have become the McDonald’s of the #reputationmanagement industry, and their sole purpose is to solve your reputation problem, which includes the use of sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence, and the deletion of negative online reviews or stories. Ask anyone who has ever had bad credit and spoken with a pay day loan company or a sales consultant through one of those Canada Drives used car dealerships. Their only mission is to get you to chase a problem with high interest money or a car you don’t need, and that’s how I feel about most reputation management companies: they’re salespeople with no public relations experience and zero vested interest in your future.
Go ahead and google Reputation Management — you’ll find companies willing to provide a free consultation, dozens of testimonials from billion dollar corporations, and the solution to all of your problems. I call it the misguided 10 cent tour that you can get for only a quarter because the “free” consultation and assessment is a lot like trying to buy a Big Mac without fries and a coke: one without the other is never in the consumer’s best interest, right?
Reputation management companies get this better than anyone, and that’s why we flock to them. They pitch a technology “white scrub” (Big Mac) of your digital footprint for a modest fee — average $5,000 — which then turns into positive content building (the fries); a monthly management fee to keep up with search engine algorithms (the coke); and the de-indexing of negative links (a Filet-O-Fish to go). Depending on the severity of the situation, you could be looking at an upfront cost of $10,000 and another $15,000-$25,000 for annual maintenance and content management. The most severe cases range anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000, which to some business owners and those with money is a small price to pay. The question is, does the system work?
Back to our wealthy friends. Yes, it works for them. No, it does not work for average, lower-middle class individuals hoping to rebuild their lives. The divide between the rich and poor has never been so prominent than it is in protecting personal data privacy and rebuilding reputation. I made this point in 2017 at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) where I compared the wealth of famous individuals like Tiger Woods and Martha Stewart to the infamous Richard Jewell, a poor, innocent security guard accused of the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The fact is, most wealthy celebrity types have the advantage of waiting out a scandal or accusation because their wealth keeps them fed and their bills paid, while average folks like Richard Jewell lose their jobs, homes, children, privacy, and are often shunned from their community or profession. So the rich make a lifestyle adjustment and take an ego hit; the average Joe or Jane takes a mortal hit. There is no level of recourse for the average unless they have the technical skills and time to manage their content, and for most that’s not a practical option. Nothing ever goes away.
Reputation management companies are here to stay, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. While I may not like their model, I understand the business case and practicality in providing a solution to a segmented audience that must consume these services. Three years ago I had a client spend $75,000 to scrub her online footprint and it worked, although she still pays a monthly fee (not to me) to stay ahead of Google algorithms. Today, I’m not so sure a “quick fix” is a viable solution. The problem is that the “get out of jail free” card comes with a limited time only warranty as public attention has turned to anger over the negligent, abusive, dishonest, corrupt and criminal behaviour displayed by public officials, businesses, charities, law enforcement, sports icons, and wealthy executive leaders to name a few.
The tipping point has tipped, and gone are the days when organizations and companies could sweep workplace harassment, greed, political malfeasance and other institutional issues under the rug by simply paying a reputation management company to make their problems disappear online. As new generations challenge societal norms, those leaders who ignore the call to action will face an unrelenting, perhaps physical, backlash unlike anything they’ve ever seen. It’s called cancel culture — and I haven’t seen a reputation management company revive a canceled person yet. So maybe it’s time to review and implement supportive and innovative human resource and reputation management solutions that fit the interests of everyone involved before an internal problem becomes a public distraction.
Written by Michael Kydd, Principal/Founder of Kydder Group Inc., a Halifax, NS expert public relations group solving problems in Technology, Mental Health and Social Entrepreneurship.