CMO Crusades to Repair Her Digital Reputation

As a New York City marketing executive, Stephanie Fierman has helped her employers, including Fortune 50 companies, define and distinguish their brands over the past 15 years. Little did she know she’d be forced to update and deploy those marketing tactics to defend her own name in a digital era.

About 10 months ago, Fierman did a Google search for her name and was blindsided by an anonymous blogger who’d made disparaging, inaccurate remarks about her. What happened next provides a real-life example of why people, not just brand-name companies such as Dell, Mattel, and Wal-Mart, must engage in online reputation management.

When the unflattering blog first appeared, Fierman sought advice from friends and peers. Her quandary: react or ignore the posts?

The post, she decided, could be equated to graffiti on a bathroom wall. No one would take anonymous posts seriously. If she ignored it, it would go away.

Not so. Eight months passed, but the blog posts still appeared in the top result in Google search for “Stephanie Fierman.”

Enough was enough. Fierman launched a counter-offensive. In retrospect, she regrets waiting so long to act. But when she moved, she did so with the tenacity of the paparazzi pursuing Brad and Angelina.

Why get on a soapbox now? “You need to get out there and stand your ground. I didn’t. I receded,” says Fierman, who’s in her last year of a three-year contract as CMO at a New York City company. “I wanted to step out, be a leader, and get the message out. This is the dark side of Web 2.0.”

Gossip, once shared around the water cooler, is now indelible on social networks and blogs. Case in point: a Silicon Alley Insider blogger named Tumor cited over 25 AOL employees who can “hit the road” because they have no real job functions. That slam is available for the world to see.

What’s troubling, Fierman says, is what’s said and written about individuals — even anonymous and inaccurate comments — can impact how someone’s perceived and judged by others, including potential clients, employers, and employees.

In fact, 83 percent of 131 recruiters surveyed this year used search engines to learn more about candidates, up from 75 percent in 2005, according to ExecuNet, a business networking organization. More significant, 44 percent of those recruiters eliminated candidates from consideration because of what they found online, says Robyn Greenspan, an ExecuNet senior editor. Reasons cited included candidates having résumés that were inconsistent with online profiles or other information, lackluster writing skills, and criminal records.

Fierman set out to build a digital identity more closely aligned with her real-world reputation. The Harvard MBA, who graduated at the top 5 percent of her class, adopted SEO (define) techniques and tapped her professional network to break free of the digital doghouse.

She ruled out legal action to eradicate the blog post.

If she took that route, she’d likely run up against First Amendment issues: What’s protected by free speech or fair criticism? What’s considered malicious or libelous? Answering those questions requires hiring a lawyer, a costly and time-consuming undertaking. A legal fight could be like kicking a hornet’s nest. Why give critics a reason to come back to attack?

Instead, Fierman launched a site where she writes a blog, “Marketing Mojo with Stephanie Fierman.” There she weighs in on professional issues, from marketing to older Americans to questioning why Mattel failed to respond sooner to news about the toy recall.

Following an SEO best practice, she registered www.stephaniefierman.com for the Web site’s domain name instead of a generic name, such as marketingmojo.com. When someone searches for “Stephanie Fierman” in Google, the URL increases the likelihood Fierman’s site — rather than someone else’s — ranks higher in the search results.

Fierman didn’t stop there. She posted her professional profile on networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook. On LinkedIn, Fierman has over 200 connections, including 13 recommendations from managers, coworkers, clients, and others. To monitor her name, she set up Google and Yahoo alerts so she’s notified of any new online mentions of her name.

She also related her experiences with the CMO Club, a network of CMOs, this week in New York City. This helped her achieve two goals: educate others on why it’s important to manage their reputations and establish herself as an authority on the issue. “You must manage your own online reputation, or someone else might do it for you,” she advises others.

Fierman’s story was an eye opener for Jarvis Cromwell, CMO at financial services company Storm Exchange, who has blogged about reputaton management. Unflattering anonymous posts “can do real damage,” he says. “People can post anything they want or do.” As brands protect their value, so too must professionals. “The higher up in the senior management chain you go, the more vulnerable you are.”

Fierman’s campaign shows some signs of success. On October 10, her site turned up in the top spot of a Google search for “stephaniefierman,” while the unflattering blog followed. But she’s going to have to work harder. By the next day, the unflattering blog post was restored to the top result in a Google search.

Online, modesty is no longer a virtue.

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