Your web presence is made up of two main elements: what you yourself, e.g. when posting on social media, etc., and what others say about you. Both of these combine to create a picture of who and what you are. Sometimes there's a tension between the two; this is most likely to occur if you have a) caught the attention of a troll, b) made a faux pas that's gone viral, or c) you're so lacking in self-awareness that your story contradicts your message. Okay, let's dig in.
What you do
I am constantly surprised by the number of people who don't seem to realise that in this digitally-connected world we live in, what you actually do yourself does more to affect your reputation than anything else. You see, people talking about you online does create A narrative about you, but it's not THE narrative.
Monica Lewinsky: the story and the message
No matter what Monica does she will always be "'Er 'oo 'ad a fling wiv Bill Clinton" but there's more to her than that. When I first started writing marketing and business reputation posts I believed this:
You can only really own your narrative if you have the support and consent of your audience. Forget that at your peril. There's no point in complaining about your reputation if you're not doing enough to present yourself in the best possible light. - Owning The Narrative: How To Control Your Online Image
What I've learned since 2012 is that it's more complex than that: you can't really own your narrative at all. You can create one, but once it gets out into a public space, e.g. the internet, where it can be scrutinised, be sure that if your actual conduct is inconsistent with your story and message, the general consensus about you will be very different from what you want it to be. I see this truth acted out in every Streisand Effect story ever.
In Monica's case, her story was that she'd messed with someone else's husband — a known philanderer, giggled about it to a confidante who taped the conversation and ratted on her to the FBI, denied it under oath, then finally came clean when the evidence emerged. However, her message was that she was an innocent ingenue caught in the headlights of power and the press, betrayed by the people she had trusted the most.
Her story now is that, in a puritanical country where "Sex should have consequences" there was only ever going to be one response to describing her affair with Clinton as being in love with him; the vindictive metaphorical tarring and feathering she's had to live with ever since, despite her many apologies. If she had owned up and apologised at the time instead of being defensive about it, the outcome might have been different, but she had no decent advisors then so she got well and truly shafted. Her current message is that she is using the lessons learned from an incident she deeply regrets to make the world a better place, particularly online, where attempts to keep her in a twenty year old time warp continue. She can't escape her past so she might as well try to use it to do good.
How conduct affects the narrative
Basically, your narrative is created and established in tandem with your audience; it's made up of what you say, what you do, and what your audience makes of it. This will manifest in conversations on various platforms, in comments made about you by others, and in what floats to the top of search results; these are unconsciously manipulated by what people actually click on and read when they check you out. Anything they think is irrelevant will be skipped over in favour of something they consider more interesting — and that is completely subjective — you have no control over that unless you know your audience and how to play to them.
The way you behave affects the way you are perceived, there's no two ways about it. If you engage in inadvisable activities and reports of this get onto the internet, you may find you have a fire to put out. If you do something cool you could change people's perceptions of you. It's what you yourself personally say or do that enables people to decide whether or not they believe the things you post about yourself — or what other people say about you online. As I've said any number of times, behave consistently with the image you want people to have of you or they won't buy it no matter how hard you push it.
What others say about you
The reverse of this principle is also true; if, let's say, somebody decides to make a career out of slandering you or libeling you online, people won't accept it as true just because there seems to be a lot of negativity about you, they'll check you out to see what your side of the story is. What they're looking for is not your words as such, but evidence for or against the assertions being made. If your attitude and actions differ from what's being said about you that's what they'll believe. It doesn't matter who does the talking, actions really do speak louder than words.
How other people's stories about you spread
If the story being told strikes a particular chord with a mass audience it will go viral. The most successful marketers know what those chords are and how to strike them. Those of us who have a significant interest or investment in online activity would do well to take a closer look at the way they craft the narratives of the products they sell in campaigns that go on for years, sometimes for decades. Yet all of that can come undone if the reality fails to live up to the hype.
How to push back effectively
Let's take another look at Monica Lewinsky. The political and media hacks who use her scandal narrative to further their own causes can't control it any more; all they've got is 1997-98. Monica has moved on. These days she is talking about the things that interest her, she's making smart and funny comments on her social media accounts and in interviews; she's making lemonade by accepting her notoriety and working to win people over instead of being defensive about her past and trying to hide from it or act as if it didn't happen. The story we have known for years is a twenty year old scandal that has passed into pop culture legend and she's playing with that. She's doing a great job of reinventing herself.
Your own online places
This post was inspired by a website that the early Nineties wants back. It's not as bad as this one but it's pretty damn awful. It's actually more like this one, but since it's one of our suppliers I won't embarrass them here. The Oatmeal put it best in How A Web Design Goes Straight To Hell: you might think that a website that "pops" is the way forward for your business but what you might think is clever and eye-catching can become very annoying very quickly.
Make it mobile and versatile
There's also the matter of backwards-compatible cross-browser support and mobile — if your website is only designed with either desktop PCs or modern browsers in mind it won't render well on every device and that may mean you don't reach your intended audience. Shutting out people who can't or won't change their existing browser is both arrogant and condescending. As I said in my last post,
This is where the rubber hits the road as far as web design is concerned: if your designer can't build for older browsers, look for someone who can. Backwards compatibility is the litmus test for web design. - Windows 10: I'd Think Twice Before Considering Upgrading If I Were You
Don't look at me, I don't do web design for a living any more. If you're running a business, hire a professional. Be willing to trust their judgement or you may end up with a throwback that has some modern features but if it was your dad he'd be calling great things "sick" and trying to breakdance with a baseball hat on backwards.
Your website affects your reputation: it can make you look like a slick professional or like you're not really bothered. Personally, I think Coming Soon pages make you look like you've opened your front door in your dressing gown, I've never liked them. Get something up there even if it's just a basic overview of your business and your contact details. And for the love of the internet keep your content up to date! One of the reasons I ended up writing this post was because I struggled to find the phone number of a particular business in the email folders at work, so I went looking for them online. Only two of the three numbers beneath the animated old-fashioned phone were current. Don't. Do. That. It makes you look sloppy. If I was basing my decision on whether or not to hire a company based on its website I'd have skipped past these guys, not just because 1995 wants its web design back, but because they're not bothered about keeping the information current. Is communication not important to them?
I once went for an interview for a website admin job with a company that does inflatable hot tubs. The idea was to keep the information on their website up to date. I asked about their social media accounts and they showed me their Facebook page. Queries from potential customers asking about prices were not being answered! I was horrified. "Is nobody going to get back to these people?" I asked. "We're too busy," came the reply. I didn't get the job.
Monitor your social media accounts and answer any queries within 24 hours where possible. Don't flip out if someone criticises you, use the opportunity to show your audience how well you deal with complaints. Basically, I'm telling you to demonstrate how much you care. Even if you're not in business, it's a good idea to conduct yourself with an idea of the image you want to portray at the back of your mind at all times. I aim for "smart and funny."
Be careful about whom you associate with; when I saw a tweet from racist David Duke in my stream I double-checked to make sure I wasn't following an Illinois Nazi type. Someone had apparently retweeted it and the person who followed them picked it up in their paper.li. This happens, it's the nature of link scrapers. What you don't want is a pattern of racist crap showing up in your stream on a regular basis. That said, people may retweet stuff they don't like to complain about it so don't be too quick to ditch people because you're afraid they might make you look bad.
If your reputation matters to you it's important to remember that your own attitude and actions have a bigger role in creating and maintaining it than you realise. It's also vital to remember that it's your relationship with your audience that ultimately decides what the narrative is. You influence that relationship by the way you behave. What others say and do can and does have an impact, but ultimately, the more people talk about you, the more people are going to check you out. Make sure that what you post in your own web spaces conveys the message you want them to believe as effectively as possible or they won't buy it. Good luck.