Many of you know that I attract my share of critics and hostile entities. My experiences on the Internet helped shape my personal views about online reputations, online reputation management, and how they can or should be shaped. There are some basic principles I feel work best for reconstructing an online reputation regardless of whether you’ve actually done anything wrong. But first let’s take a closer look at how things can go so terribly wrong for anyone with any measure of public visibility.
If the news media, a popular blogger, or a small community of nut-cases drag your name through rumor and innuendo, people tend to remember the sensational accusations and implications much longer than they’ll remember the facts (assuming any facts arise). Character assassins don’t tell you the whole story. Most people who find themselves the victims of shaped controversy tend to be far better than the character assassins would have you believe.
Which is not to say that every celebrity’s reputation is being maligned by hostile journalists who have nothing better to do with their lives than cast doubt upon otherwise shining angels. It’s one thing when someone deliberately takes things out of context to misrepresent facts and quite another when a journalist in, say, St. Petersberg, FL is unable to test all the facts and claims a celebrity has made. Not every journalist is able to get all the facts (in fact, I would be surprised if any journalist does). Only the New York Times and the National Inquirer seem to hire more than one journalist interested in making up facts (but that’s just my impression based on past scandals involving those publications).
Last year the popular Food Network star, Robert Irvine, host of the television series Dinner: Impossible, announced he would open two upscale restaurants in St. Petersberg, Fl. The project was never finished, various people are angry, and he found himself in the midst of a storm of allegations. Some of the allegations concern financial arrangements the details of which are not public record. Other allegations, however, concerned claims that could either be checked against the public record or with people serving in what we can call knowledgable, authoritative capacities.
For example, regarding Irvine’s culinary training, the journalist asked the University of Leeds if he had really earned a degree from them. They simply replied they could find no record of a connection between the university and Chef Irvine. The journalist drew no conclusions, but neither does the article reveal the depth of the journalist’s investigation or what other options may have been available (I think any journalist would argue that a reasonable effort has to be made to check facts before going to press with a story, but that some facts may simply be beyond confirmation).
Nonetheless, the ambiguity surrounding the claim (which Irvine stands by, saying only that his training was arranged through the Royal Navy) has swept across the Web in a wave of mostly negative opinion. Opinions, after all, don’t need facts to hold them up.
Other claims Chef Irvine made about his career have been called lies by non-journalistic bloggers and Web commentators because the St. Petersberg journalist asked about Robert Irvine’s service at the White House. The paper quotes Walter Scheib, the White House executive chef from 1994 to 2005 as saying: “Irvine’s ONLY connection with the White House is through the Navy Mess facility in the West Wing … never in the period from 4/4/94 until 2/4/05 did he have ANYTHING to do with the preparation, planning, or service of any State Dinner or any other White House Executive Residence food function, public or private.”
Is this sufficient evidence to say that Robert Irvine lied about having served any U.S. Presidents? On his new blog, Robert Irvine quotes two people from the White House (in private communications) who acknowledge his publicly verified service in the Navy Mess facility. The citations include a reference to Chef Irvine’s work having been recognized by President Bush. Chef Irvine has implied steadfastly that discretion is necessary where White House activity occurs.
So we do have two points of view on the matter, neither of which tells the full story. One can reasonably ask if any U.S. President ever had occasion to sample a guest chef’s food at the Navy Mess. We, the public, will never know; whereas the people who do know probably won’t say (or they’ll trickle out in typical Washington, D.C. fashion through leaks and unofficial investigations). Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this controversy for decades to come.
Chef Irvine did acknowledge fabricating a story about receiving a knighthood and owning a castle in Scotland, but his connections with the Royal Family have been challenged and he has rebutted some of the challenges while also acknowledging (or implying) that he may have embellished one incident. Rather than having actually helped make the cake for Charles and Diana’s wedding as a culinary student, he now says he helped pick fruit that was used for the cake.
Chef Irvine says his inflated resume really had no role in his selection as the host for Dinner: Impossible, and he provides his recollection of how things went down on his blog. I can only say that unless someone involved with the creation of the show disputes the story, people probably won’t care much about it. Why? Because he’s not making any sensational claims. A lot of successful book deals, business arrangements, and entertainment projects have gone down exactly that way. I know from personal experience, having watched people make these kinds of deals, that Irvine’s story sounds plausible.
His career has been long and most of the service positions he claims have not been questioned, but few people give him credit for what he’s actually done because that’s not as interesting as attacking the man on a blog. You get more readers with poison than with praise on the Web (usually — I do know of one exception that did not involve me).
So, the blood has been spilled, the skeletons have fallen out of the closet, and not every question has been answered to people’s complete satisfaction. Nonetheless, Robert Irvine (who has been replaced as the host of Dinner: Impossible by newly annointed American Iron Chef Michael Symon) has to move on with his life. He has endured months of angry feelings, no doubt felt regret at having made specious claims he has had to retract, and perhaps feels frustration that some parts of his career have required discretion that now makes it easier for people to question his integrity than to accept his word at face value.
That’s a typical price you pay when you draw the attention of other people and find yourself in a dispute with someone, but you still have to live your life, get on with your work, and find it in yourself to focus on other things. The controversy will never go away. There will always be some idiot or moron who wants to raise the ghosts of the past and rally the masses against you one more time, just to ensure that you are firmly put in the humiliating place they have appointed you.
To the best of my knowledge Robert Irvine has not approached or been approached by Visible Technologies or any other online reputation management company. I have no vested interest in managing his online reputation (except to say that I have really enjoyed the show and I will miss seeing him take on monumental challenges I could never hope to pull off in my wildest dreams). So, now we’re done with preambles and disclaimers, here are a few suggestions (both metaphorical and realistic) for what Chef Irvine can do to rebuild his online reputation.
First, save a baby from a runaway train. I’m being metaphorical, not facetious. Good works don’t erase the tarnish of bad deeds, but they do help to restore the public’s faith in your humanity and most people want to believe that at heart we really are good. After all, we all make mistakes and exercise poor judgement on occasion. Forgiving other people is part of the healing process we engage in to forgive ourselves for the dumb things we have done.
If Chef Irvine can find an opportunity to share his genuine commitment and concern for another human being, he should do so. Should he document it? Well, people have to know you saved the baby from the runaway train, but setting up a situation to make yourself look good only sets you up for failure. Someone will figure out it’s a faux event. The best thing you can do is just be on your best behavior all the time and not put yourself into situations where you’re likely to repeat past bad deeds.
Unlike some celebrities who struggle with addiction problems, Chef Robert Irvine is not likely to repeat his past mistake. The exaggerations, false claims, and most of the facts are now pretty much public record. If he gets drunk somewhere and starts talking about how he saved 15 hostages in the Falklands War, well, let’s just hope he doesn’t do anything like that. Mislead me once, I can find it in my heart to forgive you. Mislead me twice, and I’m going to wonder about your character.
Second, be a public voice. The worst thing you can do when your reputation is in tatters is hide from everyone. All that does is leave people talking about whatever took you down. You have to give people something new to respond to. On the Web that is easily done by changing venues, as Chef Irvine has done. He has started a new site, his blog, and he is speaking to people.
The only word of caution I would throw in is to advise people NOT to speak out of anger (I’ve done that and believe me, it only makes matters worse). You have to wait until you can look at the public without seeing those blood-red demons in front of your eyes. You have to see the public as wanting to hear something new. You have to feel like most people are ready to move on. If you don’t hold that position in your heart, it won’t come through in your words.
Third, join a cause. There is nothing wrong with doing public penance. Some people will poo-poo the idea and say you’re just trying to cover up for past sins. Ignore them. Do something worthwhile to show yourself that you really are capable of achieving something memorable. It won’t make the past go away but it helps you build a better future not only for yourself but for others.
Do something new. I don’t mean change careers. I mean, do something new. Get people’s minds off your old position and start making them think about what you do now. Chef Michael Symon is now the host of Dinner: Impossible and I can only wish him the best of success. I don’t know much about the guy, but he went through a rigorous selection process to be named an Iron Chef. Maybe he’ll host Dinner: Impossible for ten years. Maybe he’ll have enough class not to clash with the memory of Chef Irvine’s three seasons on the show.
Chef Irvine needs to do something new, but it needs to be anything OTHER than a Dinner: Impossible show. Food challenges are fun and exciting but he needs to show the viewing audience there is more to him than just muscle and titanium knives. He could do Cooking With Kids, Food Archaeology, or Military Cuisines. He could host the Science of Cooking, the Two Cooks And a Pot culinary commentary, or the Adventures In A Foreign Kitchen show.
Robert Irvine is a world-class executive chef whose skills are unquestionable. Talent like that won’t go unrewarded, but it could quietly slip away into the once-was catageory of famous people. It would be a shame to see his last public activity shadowed by scandal.
Resolve all outstanding issues. I don’t know the status of the lawsuit mentioned in the news article I cited above, but any legal action is a potential source of new negative news, and news drives discussion and commentary. Seizing control over your online reputation is easy when people are not talking about you (or when they are only saying positive things); but the moment something nasty hits the newswires, months or even years of hard work at rebuilding a reputation can be buried under a torrent of re-examinations.
The news media feel an unjustified need to relist every past controversy in a famous person’s life, no matter how distant and remote, whenever something new comes up. Some journalists really are hostile entities, looking for opportunities to take pot shots at politicians and celebrities. That kind of unprofessional yellow journalism has never been fully stamped out because it’s been glazed over by a veneer of excuses and rationalizations. The news media sees itself as the public watchdog (which has never really been true, given just how many scandals have been created by journalists through the years).
Whether you like the news media or not, whether you divide them into right-wing conservatives and left-wing activitists, whether you feel some are better than others, any unresolved issue stemming from a past controversy keeps the controversy alive. People don’t need to lie about you if they can gloat about your ongoing pain.
Ignore the critics. There is a difference between the press coming to you and saying, “We’ve found 50 bloggers discussing these allegations, do you have any comment?” and some idiot on a blog saying, “Michael Martinez lied and here is proof!” There will always be gullible people who don’t bother to check or acknowledge the facts. They are easily swayed by whatever their friends say, by any negative allegation, or by repeated allegations. The more you focus on the hostile entities and respond to them, the more you empower them.
Most people eventually get tired of hearing someone complain about another person. Let the complainers complain and they’ll soon build their own online reputation problems. If you want to set the record straight, just state the verifiable facts in a context that doesn’t make the controversy the front-piece of discussion. Make sure you can tell the difference between the verifiable facts and the anger you feel at someone’s smear campaign.
Character assassins live for the thrill of beating down another person’s reputation. There is no rational thought behind their behavior. They believe whatever they believe but they tell people a very fragmented and misleading story because their goal is to knock you down. The more distant they are from you, the more difficult it becomes for them to knock you down. You can create lots of distance between yourself and character assassins by not engaging with them and by not allowing them to invade your private space.
Your blogs, your forums, your Web sites are your private space. Character assassins have no right to use your own resources against you, and you’re not being magnanimous if you allow them to attack you on your own Web properties — you’re just being stupid. Ignore the critics who want to wallow in the past. Promote the people who want to focus on what you’re doing today.
There is no single way to manage online reputations. Someone of Chef Robert Irvine’s stature is not going to chase the negative publicity away by filling out profiles on LinkedIn and other social media sites. Nor is he going to fool people into thinking the controversy doesn’t exist if he builds 10 Robert Irvine sites that all basically say he’s a great guy who served in the Royal Navy.
The key to successful online reputation management is to pick up where you left off in your reputation building process. That is, the past controversy needs to become an event on your calendar, not an ongoing issue. You make it an event by creating other events, focusing on other things, moving on. The tarnish will remain but as you show people you’re not just the guy who screwed up they’ll pay less attention to what you did last year and more attention to what you’re doing now.
The old adage, “That’s what you did for me yesterday, what are you doing for me today?” works just as well in online reputation management as it does in sales and other performance-based business functions. Your reputation can sag in the shadows of shame or it can move forward and grow again.
The choice is yours.
Chef Irvine, if you ever do another show, I’ll watch it. You have my word on that.
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