UC Davis scandal exposes the online reputation industry’s own bad rap issue



Recently, the chancellor of the University of California, Davis was placed on leave following reports that the institution had hired online reputation management (ORM) consultants to “scrub” web references about student protesters getting pepper-sprayed by campus police. News stories around the scandal make it clear: The ORM industry itself is facing a serious reputation crisis.

The sequence of events involving UC Davis unfolded as follows:

In November of 2011, campus police pepper-sprayed some Occupy Wall Street movement protesters after they were asked to leave the campus.

Video of the pepper-spraying spread across the internet, and the police involved were fired or left the employ of UC Davis. After the incident, Chancellor Linda Katehi apologized for the incident but was censured for the handling of the incident by the faculty senate, and various groups called for her resignation.

In April of 2016, The Sacramento Bee reported that UC Davis paid consultants at least $175,000 to improve the school’s online image, including “scrubbing the internet of negative online postings” about the pepper-spraying incident, and to improve the reputation of the chancellor as well. By the end of April, the news disclosures contributed to Chancellor Katehi being placed on administrative leave.

What’s striking about many of the news stories reporting on the publicity campaign and the chancellor’s suspension is that it’s presented as though the university did something wrong by engaging consultants to help improve their reputation and that involvement with online reputation management professionals is somehow shady. Neither is the case.

What The Sac Bee got wrong

A large part of the problem appears to be that The Sacramento Bee, in its exposé article, may have sought to either dramatize the university’s subsequent actions around the earlier pepper-spraying scandal — knowing it would excite interest and reinvigorate the flames around the prior incident — or was misled regarding what the reputation improvement effort would have entailed.

The journalists’ use of the word “scrub” in describing the effort is fairly inaccurate, and incendiary. Did they knowingly exaggerate what the publicity campaign sought to do, or were they merely misinformed?

The journalists unfortunately did not seek out anyone specialized in online reputation management before going forward with their story — instead, they asked an apparent public affairs generalist for some opinions about the reputation improvement contracts, and, if the quotes attributed to him are accurate, he erroneously stated that online reputation management is usually done with software that “scrubs” and “eliminates” negative stuff:

(He) said online reputation management is usually achieved with software that is used to scrub the more “outrageous accusations or allegations.” If a person puts UC Davis in a search engine, it would eliminate some things initially, but a person would only have to “dig a little deeper to find anything that needs to be told.”

No, no, no! Online reputation Management is not typically done by software that “eliminates” or “scrubs” stuff from the internet! If he said what was ascribed to him, his understanding of ORM is quite faulty. There is no software out there that’s built to actually remove negative stuff!

Online reputation management is primarily accomplished by generating positive or benign content, and working to enable that content to outrank negative and damaging content in search results.

In fact, the idea of the kind of “scrubbing” software he refers to sounds attractive, but it’s completely unrealistic — how would you suggest creating software that could delete content from millions of people’s different websites without their permission, as well as from major social media platforms and information and news websites?

The closely similar concept of removing content directly from the search results is equally attractive, but there is no software for doing that, aside from inside the search engine companies themselves — only legal take-down requests and court orders are available to accomplish that, for the most part, and those actions are manually submitted by attorneys and reputation firms. No software.

Perhaps there was some confusion — the commentator referenced Reputation.com, which offers its ReputationDefender® software service to assist with ORM projects — but that system is a suite of services that only provides monitoring of one’s online reputation and tools to help publish positive materials and optimize them to outrank the bad stuff.

Again, no “elimination” nor “scrubbing” of the bad stuff. In fact, most of the software services out there which provide assistance with ORM are merely helping to monitor online mentions of names.

The confusion may have been initially caused by the consultant’s contract with the university, where it does mention that they will seek to “… clean up the negative attention…” through an “… online campaign to eliminate the negative search results …” and that they will try to “… expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results ….”

The uninitiated might have misunderstood this to mean complete eradication, although the consultant’s full descriptions in the agreement further explains:

Our campaign will expedite this process through strategic placement of online content and an increased adoption of Google platforms that will service [sic] to specifically target viral content found on YouTube and in search results on Google…[This will be accomplished] through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed…

So, the reputation consultants seem to have meant that they would try to “eliminate” or “eradicate” the negative stuff from appearing prominently in the search results — not that they would remove it entirely.

While the descriptions sound a bit exaggerated, I would imagine that, combined with meetings or conference calls going over the proposal, they clearly conveyed that this was simple displacement through judicious content creation and search engine optimization. In the full context of the entire work description, it wasn’t all that hyperbolic.

The chancellor has said that it wasn’t their intention to delete the negative items entirely, which would seem to support the concept that the university understood what was possible to accomplish. From my perspective, the full text description was generally reasonable, although I’d generally avoid use of words like “eradicate” in a project like this. (Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that the contract wording was laughable — “It read like a document written from 1998.”)

Perhaps the total budget of the project also contributed to the perception that something shady was going on. However, $175,000 could easily have been justified, considering the number of negative items that had arisen in the wake of the pepper-spraying incidents, as well as by the ranking strength of such items — videos that go viral and pages from major news organizations are extremely difficult to displace, requiring significant degrees of promotion in order to gain sufficient ranking ability to displace other prominent items.

Some of the controversy was caused by the necessity of budget cuts at the university; constituents were irritated by the university choosing to spend this amount on image rehabilitation while other programs and budgets were cut.

Some news reports included quotes from people outraged about the use of public funds for this purpose, but the UC Davis FAQ about the matter states that no taxpayer or tuition funds were used for the reputation cleanup services.

You can’t ignore critical online reputation issues

The most disappointing aspect of the situation was the lack of perspective on the part of the media. What did they think the university marketing staff ought to do? Sit back and just let the university’s reputation erode while negative items continue to eclipse all the many other elements about the school, its identity, the faculty and alumni there?

Ignoring huge online reputation issues would have caused impacts to the school’s donations and research grants, decisions of potential students to attend there, decisions of faculty candidates to teach there, and also to the legacy of many alumni who attended there in the past.

The general public may be somewhat out of touch with the reality that if an organization’s image is severely damaged, it may not be able to raise funding and preserve budgets elsewhere; the past issues can dog an organization, causing subtle damages in many ways that are not directly seen.

In fact, it would have been terrible management if the administrators and marketing staff did not do anything about the university’s online reputation!

A story from Inside Higher Ed seems to acknowledge the need for organizations to improve their online reputations, although their story concluded that the effort had been perhaps misdirected.

(Disappointingly, the story quotes another general publicity professional who erroneously stated, “If they had waited for that recalibration to naturally occur, it would feel more genuine … Those results would have naturally rebalanced.” Actually, that’s a very poor assumption! For example, search on Google for “Kryptonite Bike Locks,” and you’ll discover the Kryptonite company continues to be dogged in the search results by a video from their 2004 scandal that revealed how their bike lock could be compromised with a simple Bic pen, despite the fact that they addressed this issue long ago. Without sufficient work, such events as a viral video can appear quite prominently in search results ad infinitum.)

Are search results unbiased?

The reporting and comments around the ORM scandal betray a sense that search engine results are usually unbiased without any “interference” from marketing specialists, and that the original pepper-spraying video and articles about it “deserve” to still be present. A combination of Google’s ongoing publicity about their search results, combined with the public’s ignorance of how the search engines function, has resulted in some small level of naivete, I think.

Those of us in the search marketing industry are all too aware that search results represent ongoing battles of competing interests, despite search engines’ declared intentions of presenting unbiased results. In highly competitive keywords and markets, rankings are strongly influenced by the amounts of money spent in combinations of marketing activities among top competitors.

In yet other cases, the impressions created by search results can be skewed by a single individual with an ax to grind — I’ve worked on numerous cases involving unhinged individuals, disgruntled former employees, angry exes, extortion artists and even worse criminals who singlehandedly launched huge campaigns to ruin individuals or organizations.

The search engines themselves are actually not altogether unbiased, since their algorithms may incorporate sentiment analysis to give negative content ranking advantages; many Silicon Valley technologists are believers to some degree in the activist philosophy that information wants to be free — to the point where they may give ranking advantages to some types of negative materials which otherwise would not achieve prominent rankings.

In off-the-record conversations I’ve had with various Google and Bing search employees, the engineers have expressed some of this type of philosophy when discussing the reasoning behind why sites like RipOff Report and other sites devoted to creating reputation damage can rank highly. Search algorithms are terribly weak in the areas of calculating relative merit — much less, veracity — in the content presented.

So, the “natural” search results are not necessarily unbiased representations of topics — to believe so is to have drunk the search engine’s Kool-Aid, or perhaps to continue the subconscious human tendency to believe that the immediate first impression presented in search results is the actual identity of a person or thing.

Quite a bit of the journalism around the UC Davis reputation cleanup disclosure is propelled on a tide of anger stemming from the pepper-spraying incident itself. It’s quite understandable that student protesters, believers in the Occupy movement and journalists would want the events to be remembered, and for the institution to address the mistakes that were made.

I watched the video, and the actions of the campus police made me boiling mad, too!

But I think it’s important to recognize that the actions of those police, and perhaps the administrators above them, were the guilty parties, and smearing the reputation of the entire university has direct and indirect damaging effects upon many more individuals who were not responsible for the unjustified pepper-spraying of the protestors.

Further, damaging the reputation of the university as a whole hardly affects the people who were responsible.

There’s some degree of unreasonableness involved in the upset around UC Davis contracting for reputation improvement work as well; it’s not reasonable to believe that one incident should be the major characteristic for which an education institution should be remembered forever, an organization that includes dozens of professors and research projects focusing on many areas of development.

Some of the journalists, in fact, seem personally motivated to keep that story front-and-center. The journalist at The Atlantic expresses outrage that his work might get displaced by a positive marketing program — even citing the “Streisand effect” as part of the article’s URL, although he doesn’t mention the Streisand effect at all when writing about it.

A Huffington Post article is defiantly titled, “UC Davis Wants You To Forget About Its Pepper Spray Incident. So Here’s The Video.” — perhaps intending to make the video rank more prominently once again.

And The Sacramento Bee’s presentation of the reputation project in the first place made it out to be something like Watergate — when in fact the source of funds does not appear to have been quite so controversial. The chancellor was apparently suspended due to nepotism claims around preferential treatment for a relative and not for contracting with the marketing consultants.

There seems to be a lack of self-reflection among those who damned the reputation repair project. On one hand is the suggestion that the project was unnecessary, overly costly and ineffective, while on the other hand there is a sense of rage that by employing reputation specialists the school and administrators had somehow been on the verge of escaping the past consequences of their actions.

There’s a failure to see that paying these high fees actually was just like having to pay a fine for what transpired; the school personnel likely would have far preferred to spend that money on a variety of other things before ever doing the sort of project that feels like mopping up the blood and guts of a crime scene.

People wanted the university to pay for what happened, and now that they did, there’s an irony that they’re not happy about it.

While the reporting around the revelation that the university paid for online reputation management services was inaccurate in spots, the situation reveals that the reputation industry itself has a severe problem in how it is understood and perceived. This simply would not be a newsworthy item — or, not to the degree that it has blown up — if the public better understood the practice of ORM (not to mention, how it’s understood by public affairs and communications professionals themselves who are not technically proficient).

By some significant degree, the online reputation management industry has inherited some of the bad reputation that has long been associated with search engine optimization. Like SEO, ORM is mysterious, and it can seem like computer hacking or snake oil.

There have been articles about this sad misunderstanding on the part of the public about SEO (like here, here and here) for quite some time, although there have been many indications that search optimization has been gaining better levels of public understanding.

ORM campaigns frequently depend in part upon SEO, but there are additional facts that the reputation industry really needs to convey to the public.

Facts about online reputation management

  • Online reputation management (“ORM”) is ethical. There are instances where people and organizations have lies, defamation, private photos and other damaging materials published online about them, and these things need to be addressed because they can affect relationships and one’s ability to make a living.

    Even beyond the cases where innocent people get damaged online, people, businesses and organizations often should have the opportunity to be forgiven for something they have done and not be defined by a single isolated mistake.

  • Not everything you see at the top of the search results is true. And not all of what you see there conveys the most significant or characteristic thing about a subject. While search engines have become very effective at delivering up information for keyword searches, what’s presented at the top of the results is not always the best information, or the most meritorious.

    The top search engines in the world all disagree with one another about what items should be presented at the top for any given keyword search!

    Unfortunately, studies show that people are not always careful about evaluating the quality of the information represented before they base decisions upon it, and this is the very reason why ORM is important and necessary. ORM can help balance the equation in many cases.

    So do not assume that online reputation management is somehow unfair because it seeks to influence the keyword results — many other factors are at work at influencing the search results, too.

  • It is possible for an online reputation to be cleaned up! In some situations, defamatory material, lies, infringement and private photos can be completely removed through the help of attorneys, courts and reputation management agencies.

    In yet other cases, reputation specialists can help reduce the impact of negative materials by optimizing and promoting positive or neutral materials so that the good stuff is more readily apparent in search results compared with the negative items.

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which is frequently used in online reputation improvement campaigns, can be highly effective and beneficial — it’s not snake oil! Websites that are constructed incorrectly can be completely MIA when a name is searched upon. If you have a unique brand name or personal name, your official website should likely rank highest for your name searches.

    I’ve seen cases where a RipOff Report outranks a company’s own website in search, and that shouldn’t be the case. There are frequently thousands of items that are relevant for any given name search — SEO can also help enhance the ranking ability of many of those already-extant items compared with a piece of negative content.

  • ORM is not accomplished by software that “scrubs” stuff from the internet. Reputation specialists are marketers and sometimes use colorful language to express what their services may do, but without legal takedown requests, words like “cleanse,” “dilute” and “displace” are meant as shorthand metaphors for the longer explanation: We are “creating new content and working to optimize new and existing content in order to try to move negative stuff off of the first pages of search results so people won’t see it as much.”

    ORM professionals do use a variety of tools and practices to monitor mentions, create and publish materials, analyze rankings and optimize content.

  • Negative items on the internet do not merely “go away” on their own over time. It is possible for a negative item to rank temporarily on page one of search results for a short period, only to subside in rankings later. But the sad truth is that when something negative rises up onto page one, it can frequently gain traction — humans love to “rubberneck on the information superhighway” when they see a wreck.

    When scandalous headlines appear in the results of a name search, like “lawsuit,” “scam,” “arrest” and so on, it’s human nature to click on it. And those clicks can feed into the search engines as a ranking factor, indicating that the content is more relevant, interesting or popular than other items that are also relevant for the same name search.

    The ongoing clicks can reinforce and increase the negative material’s ranking ability over time. So, if you’re lucky, something might go away after a brief period. But don’t count on it.

  • It’s not a scandal for an individual or an organization to pay for ORM services. If you think about it, it’s not any more of an issue than paying for various other marketing and branding services. It may be fascinating to people due to schadenfreude in some cases like the UC Davis one — where people are mad at the past mistakes made and enjoy hearing about the consequences for the people responsible.

    Currently, when people contract for ORM services, it’s often done with large degrees of secrecy, and things like the UC Davis scandal perpetuate the sense that it’s somehow shameful.

  • Contracting for online reputation repair services is not a guarantee that negative content will completely disappear from sight. Applying SEO, social media management and good marketing practices gets you a “seat at the table” — it gives you a real chance of making the situation better, but it may not completely remove the presence of the negative item(s).

  • Reputation management and repair services can incur significant costs. Developing and publishing positive content, managing social media and optimizing the positive stuff all have real associated costs. One often must iteratively develop content and consistently promote it to sustainably outrank the bad stuff.

    In continually developing situations, it’s also necessary to monitor for newly emerging stuff. And the quality and ability of different service providers can vary widely along with rates — using a tool or software service to help develop and deploy things may be insufficient.

  • Online reputation management is not only about cleaning up bad stuff. When done well for businesses, it also enhances marketing goals of promoting products and services.

    For individuals, it can improve visibility and enhance the impression of professionalism, while also amplifying networking opportunities. When performed proactively, it can help better insulate a reputation against minor issues.

The actions that the University of California, Davis personnel took to address the university’s online image were not bad things to do — and not unreasonable, considering how reputation will impact the success of the organization’s various projects and individuals attached to the organization.

The scandal generated by the university’s involvement with reputation management services reveals serious misunderstandings about what ORM is, how it functions and its limitations, and it demonstrates that ORM is perceived to be distasteful and unethical. For what has been growing to become a $5 billion industry, ORM now needs to do some serious work on improving its own image.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Chris Smith is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter and see more of his writing on reputation management on Search Engine Land.



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