Be the Boss Over Cancer

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If you've got unwanted information online about your cancer, what can a new breed of consultants do for you?

During cancer treatment and recovery, reaching out for support--via online support groups, Facebook or other social media--is common and healthy. 

But when your focus returns to work, you may regret the reams of information online detailing your diagnosis, treatment, complications, frustration and recovery. 

What if your boss happens on it, and decides you aren't up for that promotion?
What if a potential new employer finds it and thinks twice about that final interview? 

About 37% of companies use social networks to research candidates, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. Another survey, conducted in 2011 by the Society for Human Resource Management, found 26% of 541 respondents charged with recruiting and staffing used online search engines to screen job candidates (down from 34% in 2008).

Thanks to a new breed of consultants, you can do much more than just worry about your online image. In the last five years, there's been a boom in firms that specialize in turning around your online ''reputation," a specialty known as online reputation management or ORM. They offer services not only for businesses criticized by unhappy customers, but for individuals who feel they aren't putting their best foot forward online.

For a fee--often hefty--these ''reputation management'' firms promise to reshape your image by burying the negative and pushing up the positive to the top of internet searches. Making information disappear completely, all the reputable firms agree, is not possible.

Here, what you need to know about ORM and your professional image, based on information from reputation managers and an attorney specializing in employment discrimination, including:

• Alan Assante, president, Integrity Defenders (www.integritydefenders.com), launched in 2009.
• Daniel Gilleon, attorney specializing in employment discrimination, The Gilleon Law Firm (www.mglawyers.com), San Diego, CA.
• Adam Reifman, senior project manager, Reputation Management Consultants (www.reputationmanagementconsultants.com), begun in 2008.
• Polly Wood, director of the special projects team, Reputation.com (www.reputation.com), begun in 2006.
• Michael Zammuto, president, Brand.com (www.brand.com), launched in 2010.

All agree that you, as an employee can--and should--take the first steps to squashing content you want to hide. (More on the how-to's below). Some reputation management sites even post free tools to help you do so.

Hiring A Pro: How They Work

While each reputation management firm promotes its own approach, they agree that changing an online reputation involves not just suppressing negative information but adding and emphasizing positive details about your work life. Adding that positive information suppresses the negative, but it takes time.

In some cases, an ORM company may contact sites and ask them to delete information. But there is no legal obligation to do that--unless the content is proven untrue and defamatory. After that, a main goal is to push down the information you do not want out there so it appears much lower in a search. According to reputation managers, more than 90% of internet users don't look beyond the first page of search results. (You can anticipate hearing the old joke: "Where do you hide a dead body?" "The third page of a Google search.")

To push down that information, ORM companies post positive information. To create the positive information, some companies conduct lengthy interviews with clients, then compose or help them compose an online profile for several professional sites. They also may create blog posts or new websites. Posting many different forms of content to take the place of information you want pushed down is considered crucial. 

Reputable firms who offer to create content say the new content must be relevant to you as well as original and honest. It should link to other content that is relevant. If a website has links to irrelevant content, the ranking will be lowered in the search engine, thus defeating the purpose of replacing negative information with higher-up positive information.

Hiring A Pro: Picking A Company

The ORM field is relatively new, beginning to boom only about five years ago. These ''veteran'' operators say the field has attracted many fly-by-night companies, and it's buyer beware. As yet, there is no professional organization or accreditation for ORM. So it's especially crucial to shop around and be smart about choosing a service.

Among the ways to do that:

  • Look for some indication the company is legitimate. For instance, does the website post a Better Business Bureau seal of approval? Does it offer a money back guarantee if it doesn't deliver on a specific action--say clearing the first few pages of a search of negative information? How long have they been in business (with the understanding most have not been doing business for long)?
  • Pay attention to exactly what the company is providing. If a company says it can definitely clean up the information you want gone very quickly--in a matter of weeks--that's usually a red flag. Managing and changing information online is not a quick process. Beware of a company that promises all the information you don't want online will disappear. Impossible, the experts agree.
  • Expect a proposal or package of services geared to you. Depending on how long the process takes depends on a number of factors--how much you posted, on how many sites and other variables. Many companies offer packages of several months' duration; some offer year-long. After that, companies may offer maintenance packages to be sure your reputation stays as you want it.

Hiring a Pro: Costs, Considerations

The fee range is broad. Companies typically offer a host of services geared to businesses and individuals. Here's a sampling of options for individuals:

  • Integrity Defenders offers a package for $629 to get unwanted information from the top of page one to the second page, $1349 to get it to the third page.
  • Reputation Management Consultants offers a suppression campaign for about $800 to $1,000 a month, including among other services building at least 25 social media profiles and blogs and proprietary linking technology that helps give attention to positive targeted sites--which boosts their ranking.
  • Reputation.com offers a ''Defender $3000" package that establishes an online presence, adds content, monitors progress for a year and includes other services.
  • Brand.com offers an individual package for $2500 for the first month and $1500 for subsequent months. It monitors websites, creates new sites, gives access to the command center to manage your campaign and suppresses negative information, among other services.

Think big picture when you decide if the fees are worth it. For instance, consider your typical level of income before deciding what--or if--to spend on a reputation management service. A fee of $10,000 may not hurt as much if you're up for a six-figure job, or have one you want to keep.

On one point all agree. Before seeking out an online reputation management company, assess the problem yourself, following a few simple steps suggested by the ORM experts. Surprisingly, the companies interviewed said this may be all you need to do. Completing the do-it-yourself steps first, before hiring an ORM company, will also help the company better decide what you need, the company spokespersons say.

Do-It-Yourself Reputation Improvement

  • Find out how much information you don't want floating around is actually out there. Google yourself (adding Bing and Yahoo if you wish). Do a search not only from your desktop but from your mobile and tablet (results can differ).
  • Keep track of what information is listed where. If medical information you want deleted is on a site that you can contact, email a request, asking that the information be deleted or blocked from being searchable.
  • Delete what you can from your postings on Facebook and other media that talk about your cancer. The more active you've been on these sites, and the longer ago you have posted about your cancer, the more likely that information is to be buried--a good thing.
  • Set up a Google alert. Plug in not only your name but your name and your company's name, your name and title, or other ways people in your industry or profession might search for you. You can keep track of that information as it floats up in the alerts.
  • Build up your presence on key sites, especially professional sites such as Linked in. Don't just fill out the basics. Build your profile. Be active on the site. Ask for recommendations. Give recommendations.
  • Think beyond LinkedIn and include Twitter, Pinterest, Blogspot, Facebook and others, spreading yourself around.
  • If you can post a picture on professional sites, post a professional headshot, not your dog or favorite vacation shot or landscape. That will produce more rankings in a search.
  • In the profiles, focus most on defining who you are, professionally. (Bonus: you'll be more focused on what you want professionally in your next job interview, review, or meeting about a promotion.)
  • For more do-it-yourself tips, see CAC's Guide to LinkedIn and Building and Protecting Your Online Image.

Whether you hire a professional or not, keep careful notes about conversations and other actions with your boss or interviewer that may be related to your online medical information.

For instance, if you posted medical information about your cancer and shortly after have a job offer not come through or a promotion canceled, recording that timeline might be valuable if you decide to talk with your boss, interviewer, HR person or an employment attorney about discrimination.

The do-it-yourself steps may be enough to resurrect your professional image online. If so, you can repeat the do-it-yourself measures in a few months, then decide if you can still go it alone or your need the pros.

Editor's note: Information on reputation management firms does not imply endorsement by Cancer and Careers.