Capitol Alert

UC Davis pepper-spray burial effort spotlights online image gurus

From major corporations seeking to repair their online reputations to image-obsessed politicians around the world, Kent Campbell has seen his share of business.

The chief strategist of Sausalito-based Reputation X, Campbell works to sculpt search results that can sway the fate of venerable agencies, institutions and individuals.

Those seeking aid have included businesses hoping to suppress bad reviews or negative coverage threatening to drive down their share price, he said. In a memorable case, a client with legal problems wanted to hide an unfortunate, black-and-white-striped sartorial image.

“Here’s tip No. 1: Don’t dress like the Hamburglar if you’re going to be arrested,” Campbell said.

UC Davis’ decision to pay consultants $175,000 to sink negative online postings spotlights an industry functioning under the surface of traditional public relations. Those operating such businesses say the first page of search results has become the equivalent of the front page of a newspaper, or the lead story on a nightly news broadcast. The first few hits can decisively shape perceptions; people rarely venture to the second page.

“Google has become so instrumental in peoples’ decision-making, where you pop up on Google is incredibly important,” said Kassy Perry, who heads a strategic communications firm. “While it takes 20 years to build a reputation, five minutes can ruin it.”

But Sam Singer, a public relations practitioner in San Francisco, said UC Davis was operating on an “unfortunate piece of advice ... that wasn’t worth the money they spent.”

“You are never going to be able to erase that from the Internet’s memory bank,” he said.

Online reputation management is important because viewers increasingly rely on search engines to get information about organizations of all kinds, said Steve Telliano, who manages the Sacramento office for Edelman, a global communications and marketing agency. However, he said people underestimate the difficulty of managing search results.

“Much like diet and exercise, plenty of people will tell you there are easy ways to do it,” Telliano said. “But science will show it takes hard work and effort.”

When The Sacramento Bee revealed UC Davis’ attempt to boost its perception, backlash ensued. The reaction quickly sent the Web ablaze, testifying to the delicate art of manipulating public opinion in the digital age, particularly for a public institution. The contracts also were intended to repair the standing of Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

Thomas Dodson, a digital marketing professional who has consulted for Sacramento and Regional Transit, said it was baffling behavior for a public agency. The University of California has faced major budget issues for years and is now under a public microscope for admitting more nonresident students to raise money, a practice recently criticized by the state auditor.

“You come to suspect this sort of thing about private agencies and companies,” he said, “but as a public agency that is already under heavy scrutiny – to have this pop up, it’s like, ‘What are you guys thinking?’ 

Rather than suppress the unfortunate 2011 stories about the pepper-spraying of students by campus police, and supplant it with positive news, Davis and Katehi have effectively pushed back into public consciousness an event that had long ago receded from the news.

Some people who shared the story online gleefully noted they were doing so in order to prevent the pepper-spraying from fading from view.

The top post Friday morning of a section devoted to images on Reddit – a website that can be hugely influential in driving traffic – was “guess it backfired on them,” with an image of a Google search of “UC Davis” conjuring posts containing the phrase “pepper spray.” More than 8,000 people shared a tongue-in-cheek tweet referencing the story with the phrase “please do NOT retweet this.”

That companies and politicians would use available technology to burnish their reputations should surprise few, said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP strategist. The goal broadly speaking, Stutzman said, is to ensure top Web searches reflect the full scope of the organization, rather than just one unfortunate event.

“To me it was totally normal that a university, especially in a competitive market, would do reputation management,” he said. “I bet you every university in the state does. There is not a major brand in America that doesn’t do it constantly.”

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign received widespread attention for its early efforts in promoting the then-Democratic senator on search engines. Politicians today are cognizant of how they appear online, with the larger, better-funded campaigns devoting resources to search engine optimization, or SEO.

Closer to home, Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva’s campaign disclosures show $2,400 in spending to Reputation.com for “website maintenance” and “web special projects,” The Stockton Record reported. Silva’s tenure has been plagued by controversy.

Sacramento spokeswoman Linda Tucker said the city has not employed firms that specifically focus on positive Web results, noting “there are ways to do that in-house.” She said the city uses consultants to help push out information using avenues such as social media, describing a suite of tools similar to those highlighted in the contracts with Davis.

“Depending upon the issue, we would use earned media,” a term for traditional media coverage, “and sometimes paid media, as well as our website, blog, billboards, bill stuffers (which are purchased), along with social media to provide info to the public in a transparent manner,” Tucker wrote in an email.

Money spent by state legislative offices on public relations must have a legislative purpose, according to spokesmen for the Senate and the Assembly. That rule would exclude working to boost search results, according to Kevin Liao, press secretary to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount.

Perry said it’s not necessarily a strategy she recommends. She recalled an unnamed corporate client who was putting out what she felt were too many news releases in an effort to spur favorable media coverage.

“I finally sat down with the executive team and said, ‘We need to stop this. It’s just going to irritate people.’ And they admitted to me, ‘We’re just doing it because it lowers the bad stuff off the first page of Google,’ ” she said.

Neither winner of the Davis contracts responded to calls for comment. But the terms of their agreements with the university illuminate how the process works.

Both contracts mentioned counteracting negative results with more positive coverage, with an emphasis on Web searches. The Nevins & Associates contract laid out an “aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results.”

Such efforts could include original content such as “blog posts, columns, email blasts, videos and social media posts,” according to the pact with IDMLOCO, or “generating original content on behalf of the university” by obtaining coverage in media outlets such as The Bee, according to Nevins.

The Nevins contract proposed to combat “venomous rhetoric” about UC Davis and Katehi with “a surge of content with positive sentiment.”

Reputation X uses all sorts of tactics to achieve its end, including paying bloggers to create content. Campbell said the work has appeared in at least a dozen languages.

Other firms suggested the process of controlling information on the Web can involve contacting someone who wrote nasty things on social media and politely asking them to take it down. If that doesn’t work, they may threaten them with legal action.

Experts said they have seen the services work best in the cases of individuals who have a bad brush with the law, such as an arrest or being falsely accused in court, and need to have the black mark appear less prominently online.

Darius Fisher, president of Status Labs headquartered in Austin, Texas, said it’s important to remember there are two sides to every story and that typically the most negative and salacious headline ends up on the top page of a client’s search results.

“I’d really classify what we do as public relations for the Internet,” Fisher said. “We focus on earned media, but also the digital side of things, of social media, putting press releases out online, producing digital content.”

Most of Status Labs’ work deals with reputation-damaging issues for private citizens rather than public officials who are in the news every day. “The news cycle moves on,” he said, naturally filtering out older results.

Dodson said he has intentionally avoided artificially driving down negative Web results because it seems secretive and disingenuous. He likened it to a government burying news beneath a layer of propaganda.

“The SEO world to me is sort of that black-hat, clandestine part of the Interweb,” Dodson said. “All of the things on the front page (of search results) aren’t there because they’re merited to be on the front page. Those things are there because they’ve paid to be.”

Singer said the tactic is less often used in crisis communications because of the time it takes to successfully execute, and the changing nature of search algorithms. A firm may spend thousands of dollars and months to bury a story only to find it re-emerge.

He called it the “public-relation equivalent of using steroids. You are falsely pumping up your reputation.”

For all the advances in technology, it’s the simplest strategies that work, said Ira S. Kalb, an expert in marketing at the University of Southern California.

Kalb believes the university should have admitted and apologized for the incident, limited its scope by pointing to all of its concrete achievements and then put in place policies and procedures to ensure a similar incident would not occur again.

“When you try to sweep it under the rug it is just going to explode, and more people will hear about it,” he said. “Now you are paying for damage control and (a) cover-up.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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