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Rick Santorum: A Compelling Case Study in Reputation Management

Rick Santorum: A Compelling Case Study in Reputation Management

Now that Rick Santorum has exited the presidential race, I wonder whether this will ameliorate or exacerbate his “Google problem.” On one hand, the anti-Santorum faction undoubtedly will become less driven in their attempts to make sure sites like Spreading Santorum stay at the top of search engine rankings. On the other, without the daily news cycle of a presidential campaign, there will not be as many relevant stories about Santorum’s agenda to counterbalance negative items. Personally, I do not have much sympathy for the guy, and not just because of his views; if this were approached properly, he never would have had a search engine problem in the first place. His reputation management failure, however, will continue to serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

In case you do not know, this all began in the spring of 2003. In response to Rick Santorum’s equating homosexuality to bestiality and polygamy, popular columnist Dan Savage sought to redefine his last name as a crude sexual term. It worked, in part because Savage was so motivated, establishing santorum.com and SpreadingSantorum.com, and because his equally enthusiastic following happily propelled his efforts. It also gained traction, however, because Rick Santorum was not proactive about countering these actions. What could he have done to reduce the impact of this retaliatory prank?

For one, he could have established and maintained an online presence that articulated his views and his achievements. If he had created an engaging independent website with quality content that was updated regularly, eventually it would have become the most relevant result when you searched for his name. Remember, he had over eight years to assert himself online and yet, he did not. Did he fail to grasp the power of the internet or did he underestimate his detractors? Either way, Dan Savage may have planted the seed for his Google problem, but it was Santorum’s neglect that let it overtake search engine results pages.

When the protest site was launched, social media was in its early stages. There was no Twitter or Facebook. If you wanted to share a link, you did it the old-fashioned way and sent an email. Now, however, we can easily mobilize legions of supporters with a tweet or status update. Santorum does have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, but his followers need to like and share his content. That means he needs to create content worth sharing. Honestly, it probably would have taken years to push the alternative definition of Santorum down in the rankings even with the help of social networking, but he was a senator when the problem originated. Maybe presidential aspirations had not even formed, but for a highly public figure active in politics that is difficult to believe. Even if the presidency was not in play, he still had a constituency to court and a reputation to protect. Complacency really is the biggest mistake one can make, and that is exactly what happened here. Even though he has left the race, he could and should still reverse that trend and start blogging and tweeting up a storm. Being active online and continuously producing compelling content will yield results, but it takes time.

If you are wondering why Santorum did not simply ask Google to exclude those sites from its results, he did and, quite correctly, Google turned him down. That is censorship, and no search engine will concede to a request to remove relevant material. Also, the less he talks about this issue, the better. Mentioning it further only invites media coverage and analysis that makes the protest sites more relevant than ever. Remember, the goal of all search engines is to return the most relevant results possible. If it is still part of the conversation, it is highly relevant. Instead, he should create new discussions and shift people’s focus to the things he wants associated with his name. If he does this, his online presence will be defined by his own actions and words, not the mischievous machinations of others.

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. That is why many public figures and companies outsource their reputation management. Having a professional build and maintain your website, monitor what others are saying about you, and help generate positive PR is one of the best things you can do if you want certain material to rank high when people search for you. It really is no different than any company with a product to sell. You need to be aware of what is being said about you and make sure you are the primary contributor to that discussion. If you have accessible, interesting, and unique content, you will eclipse other less relevant links. If anything, Santorum’s “Google problem” is an excellent case study in what not to do. Do not be complacent, do not expect a lackluster campaign site to trump years of negative items, and do not focus on what someone else has done. The only way to reshape the conversation is to actually contribute to it in a meaningful and engaging way.

Rick Santorum’s reputation management failure is a compelling case study that can serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us, and reminds us that social media alone is not enough.
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