In 1993, The New Yorker featured a famous cartoon depicting one dog typing on a computer while another looked on. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the first canine observed.
The average Internet user isn’t naïve enough to think that sort of anonymity still holds true online, but political candidates face an altogether different reality. In the 21st century, the Internet is sure to tell voters whether you’ve acted like a dog, barked like a dog, or even just been accused of looking like a dog. And it can all happen within a matter of minutes.
It’s worth stopping to remember that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pioneered the use of Web 2.0 to deliver tangible results at the ballot box. Just three years later, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the blogosphere enable politicians to inspire and influence the public on a scale previously unknown.
It could be argued that the 2008 election represented a watershed moment for voters, converting many from passive media consumers to active media creators and empowering people to influence the political agenda. Blogs, tweets, and even the information kicked up from Internet search patterns are forcing politicians and candidates to respond.
This brave new world is not without peril for candidates. Gone are the days that a gaffe stops at the door of a town hall meeting. Now, even a minor misstep takes on a life of its own, ricocheting through social media circles and Twitter feeds right into national headlines, imprinting itself on the public consciousness in a way traditional media never could.
Not only can the Internet capture every gaffe, but it can store, mutate and magnify them in a way that leaves a long-lasting negative impact. Herein lies the genesis for an emerging sector of the political industry: Online Reputation Management, or ORM for short.
Just as online advertising and marketing practices long used in the corporate world are now seeing widespread use in the campaign space, this other favorite tactic of the business world is starting to catch on, too. In the corporate world, ORM has been common practice since the 1990s.
“At one time, a business could look forward to moving past negative news once the focus of the media turned elsewhere, but articles can now be readily accessed online and live on for an indeterminate amount of time,” explains Kat Blomquist, vice president at Rubenstein Associates. “Our clients come to us seeking help not only with responding to this information, but also proactively managing their online reputations.”
According to Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, scores of political candidates—from city council hopefuls to aspirants for federal office—have approached his firm since 2008 asking for help with managing their online profiles. The company is currently working for at least two 2012 presidential hopefuls.
It’s not mainstream quite yet, admits Fertik. But like search engine optimization (SEO), he thinks it will soon be a must-have service for candidate campaigns. Whether it’s downplaying negative search results or simply monitoring what’s being posted about a candidate in various venues online, ORM consultants are pitching their services as value added even if campaigns have already mapped out a digital strategy.
Take SEO, for example. It traditionally focuses on mapping a campaign website to search engine criteria so that search engines return a candidate’s website near the top. ORM goes a step further and it’s more computational than simply manipulating search engine algorithms. ORM firms are selling software and smart technology to candidates that effectively teach Google and other search engines more about a candidate and the issues they are supporting. Searches by voters will then turn up better quality results—at least from the candidate’s perspective.
“For candidates, ORM can be quite important, because for a lot of folks it’s the first time they’re going to find out about a candidate based on the results they see on a search,” says Reed Galen, a California-based political consultant.
Galen pointed to the difficulties former Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign has faced with his search results. Googling “Santorum” can be a bit of an unpleasant experience for some of his socially conservative backers.
As for whether to cast your lot with an ORM firm, Galen suggests that short of a fully-funded presidential campaign, most candidates are unlikely to have enough cash to devote any serious money to such services. Rather, he says, “I suspect it will be part of a large social media online package or set of services they want from whomever they are hiring.”
Fertik’s pitch is that a few thousand dollars for ORM is a drop in a bucket for a major statewide campaign, particularly given the growing importance of securing one’s Internet profile. Still, there’s inherent danger in scrubbing the online past of a candidate. Some ORM companies will help politicians edit their Wikipedia profiles to downplay areas of controversy—a move that has landed some candidates in hot water and inevitably leads to a negative process story.
So far, only a small number of campaigns are employing ORM firms. But it’s something Fertik hopes to lay the groundwork for as the 2012 cycle progresses.“ORM will be standard practice in the coming years,” he predcits. “It will be interesting to see what happens when most of the spending occurs.”
Melanie Batley is a political journalist and commentator. She's a contributor to Total Politics magazine in the U.K.