Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Owning The Narrative: How To Control Your Online Image

The narrative, or story of you, your business, and how you are perceived, encompass all your internet real estate holdings and all the places you go or are mentioned online. It's about the perception of you, what's important to you, and the message you want people to receive, understand, and accept.

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. Reputation management companies will offer to bury bad news about you under positive posts in blogs, etc., but if you want to be respected there are some rules you need to follow or you're going to have to spend a lot of money on a professional publicity machine. Everything I'm recommending here is free.

Your professional narrative: your website IS your business

I'm working with a client at the moment. We're at the pre-deposit stage and talking about how the website will look when it's finished and the thing I'm pushing harder than anything else is the need to make it look crisp and professional. The advantage of working with a client who thinks you're great is they trust you, however, when they have ideas of their own you often find you have to work hard to save them from the perils of bad design decisions.

I'm never less than 100% honest with my clients and since understanding how the internet works is as essential to my business as it is to theirs (I describe myself as an internet consultant for a reason), if I think they're making a bad decision I will say so. Let me get this out of the way right now: if you don't have a crisp-looking up-to-date mobile-ready website, call me now on [deleted] or email me on info@wendycockcroftwebdesign.com. Don't wait another minute. The trouble with a shoddy website is it says you just don't give a rat's, which means you'll probably give a shoddy service. Think about it; have you ever bought services from a website that looked dodgy and old-fashioned? Don't make the same mistake they did.

If your website is the first point of contact, how will it drive business to you? Look at what your rivals are doing. Here's where they get it right:

  • Immediately visible contact details

  • Clear, concise information that tells you what they do and who they do business with

  • Pictures that reflect their core business

  • Clean graphics

  • Navigable website that scales well on a mobile phone

  • Attractive colour scheme

  • Legible text

  • Clear, well-worded content with no spelling or grammar errors

The graphics on your website should be of the highest standard — no dodgy .jpgs with red eyes or fuzzy .gifs. I love animated .gifs and make them myself but please note that people often get annoyed by insistent flashy things going off on the side like mini visual bombs. And don't use huge images. They load slowly.

Your narrative on social media

You know those rather narcissistic posts you see on Twitter or FB that go, "Me me me! Look at me!" They rarely get likes unless the sycophantic followers of popular celebrities have posted them, or they're funny, sad or useful. Anything that provokes a visceral response will be retweeted, liked, or shared. That's how memes get started. Anyway, I've seen FB accounts that receive posts but there's no engagement. I don't get a lot of action on my FB account but I live on Google Plus and Twitter. Sooner or later you've got to decide which of the social media websites you're going to "live" on because that's where you do your marketing as well as yakking about stuff with those people you find interesting. Let's take a look at the essential social media websites.


Twitter is what is known as a microblogging site. Many people think it's just about posting inane comments but actually you can post images, videos, and links there. I use it mostly to promote my business via my blog posts. The way it works is quite complex: I use Facebook's Networked Blogs app to receive my RSS stream and broadcast it to Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In, which receives my Twitter feed. I have to post to G+ manually.

You can have conversations with people there by replying to their tweets. It's considered good netiquette to retweet those tweets you like and not to post too many items in a row either by tweeting your own stuff or retweeting other people's. That's spamming and I've dropped a fair few people for doing it. Sorry, but the last thing I want to see is a whole page full of one person's tweets. Use TwitLonger for tweets longer than 140 characters.


Facebook is for family and friends. They have business pages where you can post blog updates (Networked Blogs takes care of all that for me) and assorted information and they're great for interacting with other businesses and people. That's the page you have to keep an eye on because failure to respond quickly to enquiries via your Facebook page makes you look bad. Respond every time. It could be a deal-breaker.

Linked In

Linked In is the professionals' network and the socialising is mostly done via groups. You post a topic and people either reply or you sit there looking like a lemon. I've seen some people come a-cropper there by being obnoxious, trolling (starting a fight for the sake of it), or spamming the various threads with links to their businesses. Always be courteous when posting an opinion and work on building relationships with potential clients and employers as well as your peers.

Google Plus

Google Plus is nerd heaven. There are also a number of conspiracy freaks and fascist nutbags who frankly terrify me. This is where I do all the politics, and I've been doing a lot of that lately. I mostly get on with the liberals and there's the odd conservative with whom I have the odd heated discussion but we end up being friendly even if we disagree. After politics it's cats, science fiction, and pop culture. I'm a bit of a grammar nazi so couldn't resist it when Social Media mogul Kim Beasley shared a post that went along the lines of "Are you a sci fu fan? Come and join our hangout later on."

My response: "Is that a typo or is it about martial arts with aliens? Think 'Star Wars' meets 'Blood Sport' and there's cage fighting in the cantina. I can has finance?"

I got a few lols from other Plussers. The point is, in conversations, be friendly and funny, or relevant and reasonable, but never obnoxious. I've got nearly 500 followers at the moment, which is important because sooner or later at least one of them may want to employ me. They'll only do that if they like me enough to trust me, then pay me.

Leveraging social media

Cartoon of crook thwarted by PayPal
Since most businesses have been persuaded to get social accounts, it's a great way of getting customer service issues resolved if you can't get satisfaction over the phone. I've resolved a few things by visiting the Twitter accounts of someone who has annoyed me and leaving a tweet @ them. They don't like receiving negative press so they're pretty quick off the mark when that happens. The pic on the left shows a crook being thwarted by PayPal, who agreed to remove a domain I own from another user's PayPal account even though I'd broken their rules by setting up an account in that fellow's name. When the phone-based customer service didn't work, I took it to Twitter. Job done.

This is a fantastic way of demonstrating good customer service so rather than being annoyed or upset if someone criticizes you on your social media account where others can see their comments, turn the negative into a positive by saying, "Sorry you've had a bad experience, Mr. X," then present them with a solution. You can either get their email address and get all the details sorted out in private or follow them, ask them to follow you back, and do all the back-and-forthing on Twitter. Same goes for Facebook and your other social media accounts. The idea is to get a resolution sorted out and a happy customer at the end... and more customers when they see how well you resolve disputes.

On and offline media

There are a few rules to getting it right in order to own the narrative of who you are and what you do. If you don't take careful steps to manage your image, you're going to have a situation where what you want to project diverges significantly from what your audience perceives.


I get so distracted by Google Plus discussions, it's untrue. I've just been involved in a rather spirited one about adverts, ad blocking, and whether or not it's ethical. The way you behave in discussions can make or break your reputation. I'm often seen as well-meaning and idealistic because I am. And since I'm always trying to learn new things I seem childlike to some people because I don't pretend to know things when I don't. I try to be positive because being negative is not an option for me. People appear to perceive me as I actually want to be perceived. While the discussions can get a bit heated, if you want to be perceived as being reasonable, you have to be reasonable no matter what.

Remember that what you say on the internet stays on the internet, even if the moderator removes the comments and deletes the thread because some aggrieved person might screencap your comments and send them viral on Twitter, etc. If you find you're at the name-calling and flouncing-out-in-a-huff stage, get off the internet. Switch off your PC and find something else to do. You don't need a horde of trolls and troublemakers to destroy your reputation when you can do it well enough yourself by flying into a four-letter rage online instead of high-tailing it out of there.


I haven't been the subject of media reports but I do like to read them. Since the American ones I spend the most time on are political in nature, I'm particularly interested in the narratives provided by each one on any given subject. The polarisation between the right wingers and the liberals creates some interesting stories and because this is an election year, there has been some considerable heat in many of the articles. One thing to note is that there is dishonesty on both sides as each of the more extreme ones seek to demonise the other while ignoring the central truths of a given situation.

The lesson for us is that the way each side seeks to portray itself is often very different from the way it ends up being perceived. The US Right wants to be seen as the party of the family and social stability and continuity. They have become American Dad's Stan Smith. The US doesn't really have a left. The Liberals range in opinion from a quasi-Socialist agenda to centre right, as represented by their current president. The uniformity of right wing opinion on the hot button issues (Libertarianism is mostly about breaking down Federal control. They're not centrists, as a rule) is due to the litmus test that I've never seen even the mildest Republican fail.

Building the narrative

To begin taking hold of the narrative in order to change the way you are perceived, you need to start with a clear plan of how you want to portray yourself. I like to be perceived as a fair and reasonable person who is willing to stand up for what she believes on the personal level, and as a competent skilled web and graphic designer on the professional level. For the most part I've achieved this. Try finding any negative comments about me via an online search. Now check out the links on my Testimonials page. They're checkable.

How not to do it

Building the narrative requires collusion with your audience. It's not and never can be a one-sided endeavour because you want them to believe and perceive the story of you and your business that you're telling in your online interactions. This is why the MPAA and RIAA end up being called the MAFIAA. They don't own the narrative of who they are and what they stand for; we do. If they wanted more sympathy they'd have to give up the sense of entitlement they have towards their content, and that's not going to happen in a state-sponsored and enforced monopoly. As it is, any deviation from their preferred narrative is characterised as "misinformation." The correct, and indeed the most common, response to this is "Aww, diddums!" because they never bother to engage with the public except as potential criminals bent on stealing their work. The correct response to that is to support the Pirate Party. Engage with your audience in a positive way, is what I'm saying, if you want to get people behind you and whatever policies you're promoting.

Case study: PPUK's Loz Kaye

Musicians and writers sometimes feel threatened by the Pirate Party's policies because they tend to rely on copyright royalties but I've managed to win some people over by pointing out alternative revenue sources. By doing this, I've taken over the narrative from detractors by giving people an alternative viewpoint to see them from. In the press, we are perceived as being reasonable, decent people. The recent Loz Kaye quote in the BBC's report on ACTA shone a bright light on the digital rights cause. It doesn't hurt that his remarks came across as patriotic, that he's a working musician, that he often blogs about digital rights in the Guardian and the Huffington Post, and that he gets involved in local issues and events like the March Ancoats Canal clean-up. In the slideshow, you can see the back of his head as he labours away. Loz owns the narrative of the UK's Pirate Party because he's a thinker, a professional, and he engages with his audience. He's a great musician, too. See his work. It's a great brush to be tarred with.

Taking over a narrative owned by others

This is the story that prompted this blog post:

She will always be a victim without a name.

It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.

But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story. It’s the tale of a dying child brought together by chance with a young photographer. A moment captured in the chaos of war that would be both her savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan for her.

“I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” says Kim Phuc, now 49. “But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me go.” - New York Daily News

That little naked girl, running in fear and pain from her burning village, grew up owned by a narrative that was exploited over and over again for propaganda purposes. Only the photojournalist who took the picture cared enough to make sure she got medical attention and followed up with her to see to her welfare. Later on, when she was finally free from her Communist minders, she was able to reverse the process and own the story of what had happened to her. It started with her decision to bring out a book and a documentary, which she followed up by becoming a goodwill ambassador. She engaged with her audience to build the image she wanted them to have of her and the plan worked.

Possessing the narrative

Once we have built the narrative and own it, we need to manage it in order to continue possessing it or ownership might slip into other hands. Controlling the perception others have of us relies on getting and keeping their support and belief in us. Lose that and you've lost everything. Even if you have some supporters they won't be highly regarded and you'll pull them down with you. Eventually they might quit and leave you on your own. Here are a few rules to follow in order to remain in control of your narrative.

  • Be available

  • Be approachable

  • Engage with your audience

  • Be flexible

  • Be reasonable

  • Be professional

  • Control your temper

  • Be transparent

  • Be honest

  • Be willing to stand up for what you believe

  • Be willing to admit it when you're wrong

  • Be willing to change or try new things

This is what I do and it works for me. The fact that people who disagree with me on many of those issues that are dear to me still like me and are willing to associate with me nonetheless says it all.

How I can help you

If anyone needs help with social media marketing I can help with that by making templates for social media accounts, advising on how to make the most of them, then following those accounts on mine. Web design and development services include content writing based on the information you provide me with. Graphic design is integral to this and doesn't cost more when it's part of a website building project. If you need any help with your online presence, let me know.

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