Last summer, one of our open-source media research specialists shared a terrific article in New York Magazine entitled Scrubbed, masterfully written by Graeme Wood.  I just came across it again.  It’s a pull-no-punches expose on the shameless work of a “black ops” reputation management firm.

What Does “Scrubbing the Online Record” Mean?

After a former college classmate is arrested by federal agents and charged with trying to cheat the Internal Revenue Service by conspiring to hide over $11 million in off-shore accounts and then sneaking $300,000 in cash back into the country, the author sets up Google alerts to keep abreast of developments.

  • Instead of news about the arrest, indictment and court proceedings, Graeme Wood starts to see a string of accolades and positive press stream by – nearly all of them associating his former classmate with thought leaders, the authoring of prestigious articles and appointments to charities and magazine boards.
  • As each Google ping makes the author more suspicious, he launches himself into an investigation that ultimately pulls the curtain back on the shadowy tactics of some online reputation management operations.

Due Diligence Is All the More Critical

Besides the fact that this New Yorker article is a fascinating read, it does a great job of helping to answer a question that we get at Hillard Heintze quite frequently – which is “what do I need to know about these candidates we are considering for a position of leadership, trust and authority?” When we conduct a strategic due diligence investigation for a client, it is precisely this kind of online sleight-of-hand we are alert for – and we have our own powerful toolbox that helps us identify red flags and track them back to reveal the truth about an individual’s character, integrity, ethics, trustworthiness and reputation.

Four Examples of What We Uncover

At Hillard Heintze, we complete and deliver dozens of due diligence and background investigations every week. As you can imagine, we regularly uncover information that has significant influence on whether our clients proceed with specific merger and acquisition transactions, make a job offer to given executives for key positions or enter into formal relationships with individuals or entities that share mutual business goals and interests. Here are four examples:

  1. Diapers and Lap Dances: Just last week, a search we conducted on a CEO’s nanny candidate uncovered information that she thought was private and that revealed she was an aspiring exotic dancer.
  2. A Reappearing Act: Our due diligence investigation of an executive newly assigned to a trusted and sensitive position uncovered an extensive online presence – but the trail went stone cold prior to 2010. We dug a bit deeper and discovered that the individual had legally changed his name, and under his new identity sought to promote himself as an expert in a new field.
  3. Victim Unmasked as a Bully and a Con: We found that an individual who leveled legal claims against a client had earlier made a series of online posts soliciting information about how to entrap an individual with exactly the same type of claims made by the accuser. The online record strongly suggested that the accuser’s account of events was suspect – and possibly false.
  4. A Quiet Advisor Who Shouts Too Loudly: In the process of conducting a due diligence investigation of a personal security consultant under consideration for a key position with a major law firm, we determined that he had a history of oversharing his location and activities publicly and in real-time on his social media profiles.

How You Can Protect Your Corporate Interests

Sometimes undertaking a strategic due diligence investigation makes sense – especially in support of an upcoming event or decision. But what about on a regular, ongoing basis? How do you know what harm is being done to your reputation – or that of your company and its brands? You can get robust software packages now that will automatically scan the Internet and alert you to many references, comments and discussions – although that’s a bit like trying to drink from a fire hose. We advocate a more targeted and sophisticated approach: combining the efficiency of these tools with critical manual oversight, triage, validation and “deep dive” inquiries into red flags of concern conducted by open-source media researchers and specialists. Have you got any stories to share in this regard? How do you protect your corporate interests?