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When technology goes out of control

Have you Googled yourself recently?  It’s not vanity – recruitment agencies and potential clients are all turning to Google to find out information about you and your company.  How you appear online can affect your employment opportunities and can be damaging to your professional reputation even if you don’t want to move jobs.

The PMI New Media Council are presenting at the North American Congress next month, and managing your online brand is one of the topics we’ll be covering.  I spoke to Sue Scheff, whose reputation was tarnished online – but who won a landmark legal case for internet defamation and has now written a book about her experiences.

Project managers often talk about managing your online brand but what do you mean an ‘online brand’?

It is your virtual image – and you want it to be as accurate as possible. Which means you need to learn how to maintain your online image/brand. Whether you own a small business, or simply have an excellent reputation as a professional, you want to “insure” that your online brand is who you are in real life too.

So why is proactively managing it so important?

If you don’t manage your online image, who will? Anyone!  A disgruntled employee, a friend that has turned into a foe, an ex-spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, a relative left out of a will … the list can go on and one.  It is critical that you take a proactive approach online and ‘own your own name’.  Take control of your online profile.  If you don’t, you risk someone else doing it for you.

What was the first thing you did when you realised someone had damaged your online brand?

I was completely shocked, I panicked, I froze. I felt completely powerless over the internet.  There is a feeling of fear that overwhelms you and you start wondering “Who else is seeing this?”  Of course, you initially think  “Why?  Why would anyone do this to me?”  What did I do?  You go through an emotional turmoil that is difficult to explain, however after being a [victim of] internet defamation, I have heard from many other victims that have been hit with a “Google Bomb” and we all have the same emotions – fear, paranoid, questioning ourselves, depression, isolation, helpless, alone, not to mention humiliated and embarrassed.

What is a Google Bomb?

A Google Bomb is something I didn’t know about until we wrote this book.  It is internet slang for a certain kind of attempt to increase the ranking of a given page result from a Google search.  In my case, the defendant was using my name and attaching horrible statements with it.  When people would Google me, they would see listings of “Sue Scheff is a crook,” “Sue Scheff is dangerous” etc… Slanderous and defamatory posts were rising each day – as I slept I had no idea Google Bombs were launching my way.  When your phone stop ringing, your clientele is sliding – you better take the time to Google yourself – and find out if some employee you just had to lay off has taken their revenge online.

Why do you think you were targeted?

This is an excellent question without a simple answer.  At first I was completely clueless why I was being attacked, and then I found out through a mutual friend it was because I withheld information from this person.  The information was in respect to a minor, and I was not at liberty to give it out.  I honestly thought nothing of it at the time.  However I found out later this person was furious with me.  It seemed she had a potential film deal in the works and without my information she would not get this deal. Again, I knew nothing of this until we were litigating.

There are people out there with too much time on their hands – or who simply enjoy ruining others lives.  But I do know that it can happen to anyone.  No one is immune to online slime and there is no simple answers except to be proactive in maintaining your virtual profile.

That sounds scary – no one is immune.  So are there things that project managers can do to prevent being a target?

Take steps to control your online image.  Remember, it can take you 20 years to build up a solid and sound reputation – and only 20 minutes for it to be destroyed with keystrokes and click of a mouse.  Set up your Google Alerts, take steps to control your own image – set up your Facebook page, Naymz, LookUpPage, etc… these are all free branding sites that you can use to help maintain your virtual image.  Creating a website or blog is great – always sharing who you are and what you do.

Going to court is one option to consider if there is brand-diminishing information out there about you.  Are there other things you can do to tackle it?

Absolutely, and I want to mention that going to court is usually your last option, and a very costly option.  My online defamation was at an all time high, and since I am not computer literate (at the time, I have learned a lot since then) – I retained an online reputation management company: Reputation Defender.  They literally brought the real me back to life – both online and in reality.  Part of doing this entailed building websites about me and my passions, blogging, creating that online brand image.

If the ugly posts are on a forum that is monitored, I always recommend you check the TOS (Terms of Service) or Code of Conduct – in many cases they don’t condone abuse, harassment, libellous statements, etc.  From there you would write to or email the website/forum and let them know how a particular post is in violation of their TOS (or whatever their policy is).  I encourage people to do this professionally and diplomatically – don’t be nasty or threatening with the website owner, attempt to resolve it civilly. If this doesn’t work, and you know the poster – and think he/she is approachable, or reasonable – you may want to contact them.  It is best if you could speak with the person, since emails have a way of finding themselves online – and at times, can be manipulated in a way that is not flattering to you.

I will say, in most cases people are not able to contact the perpetrators.  If you decide to send a “cease and desist” letter – be prepared to litigate.  In many cases I have seen and heard about, the perpetrator will post your cease and desist letter – and mock you.  Not fun.

You work with a lot of victims of internet defamation now.  What advice do you have for them?

I always tell victims – don’t fuel it or feed it.  The more you engage with others that are slandering you – it usually only encourages it and it can get worse.

I believe the internet is an excellent resource of information; however it has become a legal lethal weapon in many ways.  The volume of emails I get on a regular basis proves this is a growing problem that is not going away anytime soon.

Many people don’t take the time to find out whether a statement online is internet FACT or internet FICTION – they will just go on to the next vendor, and you have lost a customer.  Don’t get caught in the web, be proactive in it. And remember, what you post today, can haunt you tomorrow.  Blog, post and email safely.

Thanks, Sue!

Sue’s book, is released this month.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

Comments

  1. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist, PMP says

    7 September, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    It is easy to see and understand why this was such an awful experience for Sue.

    I generally don’t respond emotionally to false accusation or unwarranted attack. Why? Because I find confidence and comfort in the truth. I know, many folks would roll their eyes at this and consider it to be completely naive. But I have always believed that truth prevails. Yes, there are exceptions, but I have found them to be rare.

    And if truth does not prevail? That may not be a bad thing. Does anyone want to associated with or work for an enterprise, organization or individual that can be so easily duped? Who uses Google, or the internet for that matter, as a SINGLE source of information when it comes to forming an opinion or judgment on somebody?

    At times when I have find myself in a rush and somebody at a conference or event wanted my blog address, or Twitter ID, or bio, I would just say, “Google me.” I also do so when I submit an abstract to a speaking opportunity. And this was with knowledge that the first Steve Romero listed is being hunted by U.S. Marshalls.

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist
    http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

  2. Heidi Hooper says

    7 September, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you for being open about your Google bomb. It happened at our firm when an employee was fired (for working her side business on our company time). She wrote a scathing bog post with false accusations and a lot of name-calling targeted to the CEO. The gut wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach is overwhelming knowing that there is nothing you can do to remove things on the internet. What we did lessen the negative impact was I made a personal appeal to her on Twitter and on Facebook(as a former co-worker) to try to steer her into realizing the true source of her anger, and also use the incident as a case study for the importance of monitoring the web.

  3. Zoe Sands says

    7 September, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Thank you for this great article and sharing your experiences. It is really important to highlight how you should protect your personal brand online and how to deal with impersonators or those who want to damage your brand. From my perspective I regularly check all the search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing) as you tend to get different search results in each engine, it only takes 15 minutes to do and I then check for anything that is associated with my name and follow up on anything which is incorrect.

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