Does everybody deserve help with their online reputation? Insight into our decision making

First, to provide some background. BrandYourself is an online reputation management company that helps individuals and businesses clean up, protect, and improve their online reputation and privacy. In an age of cyber-bullying, revenge porn, online hate sites and inadequate online privacy laws, we believe that everybody deserves the power to protect their reputation and privacy on the web.

You can read more about the company here, here and here, but essentially, if something negative gets posted about you online, we can help you counteract it by creating content that highlights the positive aspects of your personal story or brand. We can’t undo or hide the negatives, but we can help balance them out.

One of the more challenging aspects of running an online reputation management company is deciding when to turn down clients. How do we make sure we uphold BrandYourself’s overarching philosophy–every person/business deserves a voice in how they are being portrayed online–while remaining true to our own company morals.- We don’t want to work with people who have done truly horrible things.

Since the company’s inception, this is something we’ve continued to think long and hard about..

On the one hand, we firmly believe that a negative thing can happen to anyone online, and that it shouldn’t keep you from moving on with your life. It feels good when we help victims of revenge porn or someone who’s being slandered online by an anonymous enemy. It also feels good when we help someone who has made a mistake, as a single negative google result can keep someone from ever finding meaningful work, no matter how much they’ve reformed. It’s such an issue that places like the EU have enacted laws like “the right to be forgotten” to prevent this type of public humiliation but it rarely serves as an effective solution (link to right to be forgotten post). At BrandYourself we believe, even if you’ve done something wrong, you should be able to do your proverbial time without a scarlet letter following you around forever.

On the other hand, we decided early on that there are certain clients we don’t want to work with. For example, we don’t want to work with someone who’s committed sexual assault, a hate crime, or a serious violent crime. We also won’t work with a company who’s been complicit in these types of crimes. Examples of complicity include actively employing an individual who’s committed these crimes, failing to notify or cooperate with authorities, smearing the accuser or victim, dissuading victims from reporting the incident to authorities, and several others.

If someone’s been convicted of a crime like that, it’s easy for us to turn down the business. Other cases aren’t so clear. Should we take a client on who’s been accused of an unsavory act but never convicted? As we all know, “not guilty” is not the same as “innocent”. If they’re guilty, then they clearly aren’t the type of person we want to work with. However, if they’re innocent, they deserve our services more than anyone.

How do we know? How do we evaluate?

It became clear early on that we could never sustain or scale a business–especially in the ORM space– unless we created guidelines and processes that helped us navigate the customer landscape.

So how do we try to maintain a fair, consistent, scalable process to evaluate potential customers?

1) We created clear guidelines and a decision making process that are used to evaluate every customer who approaches us.

While most customers are pretty straight forward–good people who need our help–sometimes we come across clients who are dealing with more controversial issues. It’s not always clear if we should help them or not.

To deal with this, we’ve created a consistent, scalable decision making process with clear guidelines that’s inclusive of input from across our employee base.

What is that process? The excerpt below is taken directly from our company policy:

When faced with a challenging client case, BrandYourself applies its decision making criteria to determine one of three next steps.
  • Begin working with the client
  • Refuse to work with the client
  • Have the case reviewed by the Review Committee
This initial decision is determined by the heads of the service department(s), that would be working directly with the client, the Executive team (currently CEO, COO) and HR Director. It will be ensured that at least one senior female and one senior male (Director level or above) will be included in discussions if they are not covered by one of the above roles. Collectively, these individuals are required to apply the companies current decision making criteria to each challenging situation and come to a unanimous decision. If unanimity cannot be reached then the decision defaults to Option 3, review the case in the Review Committee. The decision made at this stage is not final and can be revisited at a later date in light of new information.
There are three umbrella categories in which hard lines can be drawn for whether we would reject working with a client, a) serious violent crimes b) offenses of a sexual nature c) hate crimes.
The specific criteria applied to each case will differ depending on whether the client is an individual or a business. The reason for the distinction is primarily driven by differing levels of accountability placed on an individual and their own actions vs. a business and their employee’s actions. With regard to business cases, the critical challenge for BrandYourself is to determine if the business in some way remains passive and/or actively supports offenses of this nature through lack of action, ineffective/inappropriate policy or repeated breach of policy.

Everybody in the process is educated and trained on our guidelines so there’s no confusion. 95% of the time, these guidelines allow us to to make quick, consistent decisions that maintain our company philosophy alongside our company values. However, there are times that the situation doesn’t cleanly fit into the guidelines. In those cases, we turn to our review committee.

2) We have a Review Committee for cases that don’t fit neatly into our guidelines.

For cases that don’t fit neatly into our guidelines, we created a Review Committee that discusses the case and all available information to make a collective decision. The committee is designed to be as unbiased as possible and represent the makeup and values of BrandYourself’s employee base so decisions can be reflective of the collective values of our business. No employees are allowed to appeal to members of the committee before a decision is made, and once a decision is made by the committee, no team member can undo it in the absence of new information–including executives and founders. Below is an explanation taken directly from our company policy.

For situations deemed to require the Review Committee, the committee is assembled and presented the facts available for each client case by the person best informed on the situation. After discussion and Q&A, individual committee members are asked to anonymously vote for a Yes or No as to whether we work with the client. The decisions are made by majority rule.
Who is in the committee? The committee is comprised of representatives from different departments throughout the business. The committee will always contain an odd number to allow for majority rule and the committee includes 4 females and 3 males to reflect the gender distribution in the company at large. Executive management is excluded from the committee and its proceedings so that its members aren’t unduly influenced and can evaluate each case as a group of peers
How is the composition of the committee managed? Every 6 months or when required (due to unavailability or employee turnover) departments will be asked to volunteer a member to sit on the committee. The gender of that committee member will be a requirement and the choice is the responsibility of the department itself.
Review Committee Process: The committee discusses the nature of the situation and evaluates all of the known facts surrounding it. The committee then votes anonymously on whether or not to take the client on, with the majority determining the outcome. Anonymous voting serves to keep people from feeling pressure to vote one way or the other.
Review Committee Etiquette: While employees may personally request not to work certain accounts that are passed by the Review Committee, all employees are expected to respect the conclusions of the Review Committee. That means that individuals are expected not to openly undermine the committee’s decisions and not to pressure individual committee members to vote a certain way in certain situations. This behavior will, at the very least, automatically prevent an employee from being considered eligible for the review committee in the future.

3) We refrain from using “black hat” techniques that unfairly hide important negative information or aim to smear other people/companies.

While we firmly believe ORM is a fundamentally important service in today’s day and age, we also acknowledge there are some bad players in our industry. These are companies who actively engage in “black hat” techniques to hide important negative information on the web, often enabling serial offenders to continue. At their worst, they even try to manipulate search engines and smear innocent bystanders online.

I’ve written about this troubling concept in the past. As I say in the article, black hat techniques don’t work long term and ORM can’t hide consistent and fundamentally bad behavior. That said, we make sure we educate our employees and our clients so they understand the detriment of using black hat techniques, and immediately drop any customer who insist we use them.

4) We find ways to help the people who need us most and reinforce our values/mission.

On top of everything else, BrandYourself is always looking for ways to help people who need it most. We realize not everyone has the time, money, or capability to solve the problem themselves–even when using some of our free tools. Finding ways to help these people is a key way we reinforce our values and our mission.

For example, this year we launched a partnership with the nonprofit organization, Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO). The organization’s mission is to help rehabilitate young, at-risk men (age 16–24) so they can start a meaningful career and avoid entering or reentering the criminal justice system. Often, after someone serves their time, they find it difficult to move forward especially when their past misgivings are featured online, front and center. We provide free tools, services, and workshops to help the organization empower these individuals with a more accurate online depiction of who they are and the confidence to take the next step.

This year, we plan to launch our initiative to combat Revenge Porn and help victims regain their narratives. Revenge Porn–or non-consensual pornography–is a growing issue. With legislation struggling to keep up, many victims have nowhere to turn and no way to remedy this extreme assault on their privacy. With this initiative we hope to use our team and resources to provide free services and tools to victims, spread awareness and education about the problem, and most importantly, promote and shape new legislation and policies that can prevent this from happening in the future.

Our processes are always evolving as the company grows, but one goal remains constant. We want to create a company that maintains some of our core values–innocent until proven guilty, everyone deserves a second chance, right to combat unfair slander online–with our internal directive to avoid clients who digress from our own collective moral compass.


Originally published at brandyourself.com on January 8, 2019.