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Washington - The team is camped out in the company's sixth-floor conference room, all eyes trained on a large flat-screen TV mounted on the lime-green wall. On the screen is a scrolling Twitter feed filled with photos of a muscular, tattooed gentleman posing in various strategically positioned outfits - a metal-studded leather harness, snug-fitting underpants, precipitously drooping boxer shorts.
Brian Patterson, the young guy in jeans and a button-down shirt who is piloting the onscreen images via Macbook, shakes his head. “This Twitter account is really rough,” he says. “This is not doing him any favours.”
The “him” Patterson refers to is a graduate student, one who will soon enter a competitive job market where prospective employers will almost certainly Google his name before setting up an interview. At the moment, an online search would lead to a few undesirable results, including this Twitter account and its vivid portraits of male anatomy. So the student has sought the services of Patterson and his colleagues at Go Fish Digital, an online reputation management agency based in McLean, Virginia, in the hopes that a professional online makeover might make him a more attractive job candidate.
This kind of digital service, offered by a multitude of companies across the country, has long been favoured by celebrities, corporations and other high-profile clientele; since Go Fish Digital was founded nearly a decade ago, these high-dollar accounts have made up the vast majority of the agency's business. But as graduation approaches each spring, Patterson and his team also see a surge of students and graduates who contact the company looking for help - triple the usual number, though the company, for proprietary reasons, won't offer a precise tally.
This is what a professional online reputation management “campaign” looks like: four people - one patched in via video - around a conference room table, jotting notes on laptops, carefully examining every trace of a client's digital existence and plotting a strategy to improve it. Their goal is twofold: stop the bleeding, then apply polish.
On a large whiteboard beside the wall-mounted screen, a to-do list for this client is growing, with the obvious scrawled in bold blue marker: “TWITTER - DELETE.”
But Kat Haselkorn, the company's social media guru, argues on behalf of saving the account itself, because of its high placement among the client's search results.
“It makes more sense to just delete the tweets and start from scratch,” she says. “Let's get him to retweet things that matter... so if people click on it, they see his brilliant insights, not pictures of guys chained up.”
If “delete lewd pictures” seems like fairly obvious advice - well, it is.
“None of this is a secret,” says Mike Moriarty, a partner and marketing director at Go Fish Digital. The agency has published basic instructions for online reputation management, including how to build positive content and push negative links off the first page of search results; how to find your Google “autocomplete values” to learn what search terms are commonly paired with your name (i.e., “Justin Bieber racist joke” or “Joe Biden gaffes”); and how to take control of your “personal brand” by registering domain names and building profiles on social media and professional sites.
The company also offers tips on what not to do. For instance, when people find something mortifying about themselves online, they tend to search for it over and over. That's bad, and not just for one's sanity and self-esteem: Those repeated searches and clicks tell Google that the link in question is important, says Daniel Russell, a new business associate with Go Fish Digital.
“If there's something bad out there, the first thing to do is to stop looking at it,” he says.
Where students are concerned, Moriarty says, the company often offers its services at a steeply discounted rate - in rare cases, for free.
“We take mercy on some graduates,” Moriarty says, noting that reputation management services for individuals starts at about $1 000 per month. “Not everyone can afford this, and we'll tell them what to do. But sometimes they see that and they think, oh, good, you know what you're talking about! I'll hire you to do it.”
The team's current client, whose search results remain displayed on the big screen, is in fairly good shape, despite the graphic Twitter account. He shows no measurable results on Google Trends, meaning that he's not a hot search topic online. No one has linked to the opinion piece that he wants to remove from a student website. His autocomplete values are benign. By building positive profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Quora, he can make that all-important first page of search results shine. The prognosis is good.
Students don't have the digital footprint of a corporate brand, and their problems are rarely irreversible. “They're not Exxon Mobil,” Russell says. “There's still hope.”
“Well, unless they really screwed up,” Patterson says.
“But even then, sometimes you can turn it around,” Moriarty says. “What was the name of that sorority girl? The one who wrote that crazy e-mail to her sorority sisters?”
Start typing in Google, and you'll get as far as “sorority girl” before autocomplete offers a reminder of how some missteps live forever: There's “sorority girl letter” and “sorority girl rant” and, alternatively, “deranged sorority girl” or “university of maryland mean sorority girl letter.” That's her: Rebecca Martinson, the University of Maryland Delta Gamma sister who authored an infamous screed, riddled with especially creative profanity, and went viral last year after the missive to her fellow Greek housemates was leaked to Gawker.
Haselkorn notes that Martinson managed to turn an arguably unsalvageable image into a successful, if unsavoury, brand. Since achieving Internet stardom, she has penned an essay for Vice about a topic that can't be described in a family newspaper, started work on a novel and writes a regular advice column for the website BroBible.com (“The Time I Made Powdered Alcohol and Snorted It Like Crack” and “Fat Men Are Disgusting” are among the tamer recent headlines.)
“She was blasted in every major media outlet,” Haselkorn says of Martinson. “But somehow, she managed to turn it into the job of her dreams.”
(#Resourceful, but let's aim higher, class of 2014.)
Martinson is, of course, a rare case. Most students nowadays are well versed in what not to do online, and the panic-stricken grads of the aughts - the ones who were in school during the advent of Facebook and Twitter and learned those early lessons the hard way - have been replaced by savvy teens and 20-somethings who are less worried about blunders and more focused on how to promote themselves.
“There was a period where we talked a lot about privacy settings on Facebook, electronic communications, things like that, but now students know this,” says Kelley Bishop, director of the career centre at the University of Maryland at College Park. “What we're preaching to students now is that you want to develop an online presence and use that as a way to begin interfacing with professionals in your chosen field even before you cast yourself as a candidate... It's less about getting rid of bad stuff, and more about building up the good.”
That means an uptick in clients such as Casey Fabris, a 21-year-old journalism student at Syracuse University who hired Go Fish Digital last year to build a professional website. Her parents footed the $5,000 bill, and Fabris says the site has already been a huge help with internship applications and professional networking.
“Everyone, especially future employers, are out there Googling people,” she says. “It's important to have a place where they can go for all of your information, and I think it's also very important to have a strong brand, and a website is a really good place to establish that brand.”
In the Go Fish Digital conference room, the whiteboard and laptop screens have been filled with to-do lists to build a brand for the grad-student client, and the group brainstorm is coming to a close. The big screen still shows a list of Google search results, which will be transformed within a couple of weeks, the team members estimate. If the client follows all of their recommendations, the team agrees, he'll soon be ready to pass the Google test with his professional profile beefed up, his Twitter feed revealing his insights - and nothing more risque.
The Washington Post