Financial services consultant Jeff Thompson* was crossing the U.S. border a few years ago when his vehicle was surrounded by armed border guards and his entire family ordered to step out. They told him his youngest son shared a name with a fugitive.
It took about an hour of comparing various identifiers, including social insurance numbers and birthdays, before the guards admitted they had the wrong person.
A good reputation is the worst thing to lose, especially in the financial services industry. Whether it’s pump and dump or Ponzi, every time financial fraud’s committed, the entire industry loses some goodwill.
And the emergence of ever-faster methods of communications means building and protecting reputation has never been harder. Worse, your credibility can be besmirched by factors you can’t control.
In such an environment, swift damage control is imperative, says Tony Wilson, a Vancouver-based lawyer and author of Manage Your Online Reputation.
“If you don’t act quickly, stories [can] be repeated on other websites, cascading the problem even further,” he says.
Will the real Mr. McCoy please stand up?
Recently, a computer analyst found he couldn’t open a bank account because the institution’s online background search kept returning information about a criminal (who faces multiple charges for defrauding investors) with the same name.
The analyst had to ask Quebec’s Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF) to tweak an article on its website where his namesake was reported to be facing 11 charges and a $432,000 fine.
The AMF obliged by putting the accused’s date of birth next to his name, which was different from the victim’s, as an identifier. The victim then went on to make similar requests to other websites where the report was posted.
A quick LinkedIn search shows how many people share names with crooks. There are about a dozen LinkedIn members in Canada named Earl Jones, none of whom could have anticipated a Ponzi scammer would one day attach notoriety to their moniker.
Since neither advisors nor their clients are immune to cases of mistaken identity, be prepared to ask for, and offer, other sources of ID, says Tom Nunn, veteran media and public affairs consultant, who specializes in building and protecting public profiles of professionals.
“Whether it’s date of birth, residency, middle names or other identifiers, there should be a way to clarify the confusion over identity,” he says. “The institution hopefully will see the error. If not, escalate the issue to [higher] management.”
Read: Don’t skimp on branding
And, since having something pop up in Google usually means word has spread across the web, it can become necessary to take further steps, like asking for a clarification from the original source of the news.
“The sooner [the source] is made aware of a negative impact on an innocent party, the sooner you get ahead of other potential problems,” says Nunn, who sat on the Ontario Press Council for seven years and has seen cases where people with similar names have been harmed by factual media reports.
“A quick call to the managing editor or editor-in-chief can determine if they can run a clarification.” If not, it may be necessary to consult a libel lawyer, he adds.
Burying bad press
But Wilson says it makes more sense to use professional reputation management services.
“Lawyers may be the least useful people [in these cases],” he says. “Many see reputation management problems as resolvable only by stern letters and lawsuits.”
A strong statement coming from a lawyer.
By contrast, “[reputation management] firms know a lot about search engine optimization, and its cousin, search engine de-optimization,” says Wilson. “They add many positive comments and ensure the positive or non-harmful comments rank higher than the negative comments.”
Vikram Rajan, a U.S.-based marketing advisor to the financial services industry, suggests a similar approach.
“Unfortunately, there is no real way to remove inflammatory, wrong, or accusatory stories from the Internet,” he says.
“Advisors can only dilute the results by seeding their own content; that is, blogging through a dominant platform, like WordPress.”
Articles, he adds, need not be long, preferably as short as 300 words.
Online reputation management companies routinely design these online packages. They comprise a range of offerings—from multiple biographies to success stories, and opinion pieces to testimonials. The aim is to increase the victim’s online presence.
Once that content is posted online, it’s picked up by search engines, and hopefully buries contentious references by forcing them down in the search results.
And, because Google only removes posts for copyright and legal reasons, Rajan suggests people and businesses create Google+ profiles, which rank high in search results on that engine.
Read: You can’t avoid Google+
Pre-emption is better than cure
Use Google Alerts to monitor what’s said about you online, says Rajan. You’ll receive email notifications each time your name, or any keywords you select, are mentioned on the web.
“Perhaps there were other financial advisors named Bernard Madoff who had a serious reputation management problem when the fraudulent activities of the [infamous] Madoff were exposed,” Wilson says.
If you find your reputation under fire, act fast.
“An immediate response would be to email contacts and colleagues to clarify,” Rajan says. “Better to bring up anything objectionable before people find and gossip about it.”
Reaction time is of the essence, agrees Nunn.
“If there’s a vacuum and no response to a broad negative issue, it will only get worse,” he says. “Client money can move quickly if trust is [shaken].”