What should you do if someone trashes you online? It can happen to anyone, and once Google gets a new snippet about you, there’s nothing stopping it from becoming the first-place search result. Maybe you made the mistake of ‘friending’ that co-worker who saw some of your shared exploits from last weekend’s party and they decided to come after you. Or maybe someone took issue with something you’ve contributed in an online forum. Whatever the situation, we can all agree that it’s no fun to get clobbered online, and it runs the risk of adversely impacting your personal brand.

People can be surprisingly aggressive and abusive in online forums, partially since most places allow for anonymous posting, and partly due to the fact that there are not a lot of barriers to tearing into another person online — you don’t have to say anything their their face, and that emboldens some people to bring out extra venom.

So what happens to all the work you’ve done to create a strong personal brand if someone (carelessly or intentionally) makes a detrimental statement that you may have to live with indefinitely? When faced with this situation, you know you need to act quickly, since every search for your name could be surfacing this damaging content to new people: clients, friends, bosses, potential investors and others who might mean a lot to your future.

You know you have to act, but what should you do first?

First off: Think.  Don’t overreact. You’ll want to get a little more information before you take your next step. Who placed this content? Is this just a troll looking for cheap attention, someone who doesn’t really deserve a response? Or are they influential? Have they been positive contributors in the past? What may have changed? Is this attack part of a trend that could grow, and are other people jumping in on the abuse? How visible is this content? How likely is it to remain visible? Gather as much information as you can, as quickly as you can.

Next: Decide.  Is the criticism justified? Maybe you really did say something careless, or share a little too freely about some personal activities. In that case, you’ll probably decide to own it, or toughen up and just accept that you had it coming. Or perhaps you know the person and it might be more important and effective to respond offline first, reaching out to the offending party directly. Decide what your next move should be, and keep in mind that any action you take can either diffuse the situation or inflame it, so consider all the implications of your chosen path forward.

Lastly: Fix it. If it’s both possible and appropriate, take action right at the source of the material. You can ask the poster or the platform owner for the content to be removed or edited if it’s unfair, misleading, or just plain damaging. If you can’t remove it (or don’t wish to), then maybe there is something that you can contribute to help clarify the situation or address the complaint. Be honest, and make it right it you can. Maybe you need to apologize, or remove some other content that you’ve posted. Take responsibility for what you can, and make sure you can leave a future impartial reader clear about what happened, if you need to.

You probably will want to do some follow-up in order to repair the damage (after all, Google never seems to forget, does it?) and in most cases this involves ‘burying’ the negative content by ensuring that more positive content about you will outrank it in search results. As they say, the best place to hide a dead body is on the second (or third) page of Google’s search results, so if you can’t get rid of the smear, then you might at least make it harder to find. But only take these actions after you’ve done the first three recommended above.

Going forward, however, if you really want to be better prepared the next time something like this happens, you can take some additional steps, such as:

  • Have a brainstorming session with a friend. Spend some time imagining all kinds of scenarios and talk about what you think you’d do in each situation. It can help to keep you calmer and more decisive if you’ve spent some time thinking about what to do when you’re not under pressure for a rapid response.
  • Do ongoing checks of your privacy settings across networks that are important to you and your reputation.
  • If your brand and reputation is critical to your success, consider hiring a coach to help you keep stoking the fire under positive results and mentions. This tactic can be particularly important if your job is related to B2B sales or purchasing, or if you’re a senior manager for a company, because you’re more likely to have people searching your name to look for information about you and your business.

Jennifer Dalton, CEO at BrandMirror wrote a good piece recently about thinking ahead and predicting how your personal choices might impact your online reputation. It’s worth a read to help you be more intentional about how you want to appear in online searches or social networks where you interact with the public. Her points may cause you to pause and think before you hit the Facebook Add Friend button, if you know you’re likely to overshare.

Best of luck — and be careful out there!

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