The Ethics of Online Reputation Management

Few things impact an organization more than its reputation.  In the wake of the Lance Armstrong fall from grace, the nonprofit organization LiveStrong, which is dedicated to fighting cancer and was founded by Armstrong, is struggling to survive the PR fallout. More companies are recognizing how precious their reputation is to survival and competitiveness, and they are turning to online reputation management services to protect theirs.

As the ORM industry burgeons, many of the techniques they utilize have come under fire.  The most widely used form of online reputation enhancement stem from search engine optimization (SEO) methods to push up websites’ rankings.  The basic concept is that favorable websites can be pushed up to the first pages of search engine results, which in turn shunts unflattering content to the rarely viewed later pages.

Of course this raises the question: are consumers receiving an objective picture of a business?  The easy answer is probably not.  Businesses that can supplant critical posts from unhappy customers are not providing a fair and balanced image of themselves to potential clients, but marketing isn’t about providing objectivity.  Marketing a business or product is about connecting consumers with the goods and services they need, and the argument can be made that the majority of companies engaging in ORM are still supplying the majority of their customers with satisfactory products.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.

There is also the counter argument that ORM will suppress a few bad comments and maybe a wayward news article, but it isn’t possible to shield the entire world from consistently bad actions by any organization.  The role of ORM is to help propagate a positive image and contain a minor outbreak of negative PR, but there are just too many news outlets to get the word out if a company is habitually incompetent or malicious.

The role of most ORM companies is to monitor the public’s opinion of an organization and massage it to favorability.  It is not possible for any organization to completely strong arm the public into liking something it genuinely does not favor.

There are some techniques that online reputation managers use that can be termed black hat, but the majority of them are predicated on the objectivity and fairness of most third parties.  Many ORM companies will simply ask a webmaster to remove unflattering content.  In most situations a simple explanation of the situation and a polite request are sufficient.

Many ORM companies police themselves when taking on a client.  They will research the history of a potential client to gauge how much effort would be required to enhance their reputation.  An individual or organization with a long string of black marks would probably find themselves unable to hire a ORM company. Some companies have even turned down potential clients when they determined the negative reputation was deserved.

In summation, the role of ethics in online reputation management is important, but like in many professional arenas, it will take on secondary importance to the needs of business.  Despite the criticism of consumer watchdogs that ORM companies bury information critical to consumer awareness, information about businesses is not erased, but merely put at slightly out of arm’s reach.  In most cases, the ORM industry serves merely to emphasize the positive, rather than transforming an ogre into Prince Charming.