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What We Can Learn about Online Reputation Protection from Herman Cain and Joe Paterno

Welcome to GAL Radio.  Today, we’re talking about reputation management in the internet space.  There’s a lot of stuff that goes on on the internet.  There are review sites such as Yelp and Google Places.  Your Google Places’ page has a place for people to post a review of your services.  For lawyers, there is AVVO and a host of other rating services.  One thing that has caught my attention the last couple of days is the reputation issues that are being faced by Herman Cain, who, as we all know, is facing any number of accusers on sexual harassment, and Joe Paterno over at Penn State, as a result of his alleged failure to do more when he became aware of an assistant coach’s alleged abuse of a child in the locker room.  All of this got me thinking about something that we do at our law firm every single day, which is online defamation/ internet defamation claims and defense on behalf of people who are looking at a Google search result that they don’t like, on the plaintiff’s side, or they have been accused of internet defamation in a defamation threat letter from an attorney.


I think that the internet has fundamentally changed the reputation game.  Reputation used to be something that was very community oriented.  It was something that we worried about on our block and in our town and in our city and in our relevant profession, what other lawyers in town thought of us was potentially important in terms of reputation.  What our neighbors think of us is potentially important in terms of reputation.  The internet changed that because all of sudden someone could post something online and literally the whole world could see it. 

So, if someone posts a false statement of fact about me online, that can be a lifelong problem if I don’t deal with it somehow.  If the person who’s posted something online is anonymous, then I’ve got the added challenge of, well, hey! How do I go about identifying this person and figuring out who they are?  And, of course, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provided immunity to providers of web services such as web hosts and the people who run the websites such as Yelp and AVVO from liability for defamation, which, of course, gives me no leverage at all to go to the person who’s running the website and have the defamatory content taken down. 

Well, what really has occurred to me and has come home within the last couple of days watching Joe Paterno’s reputation get dragged through the mud, and Herman Cain’s reputation get dragged through the mud is that, really, reputation is becoming more important both offline and online.  In a way, Joe Paterno’s problem is pretty predictable, and even if we didn’t have the internet, it would be on the news every night.  It would be in the newspaper.  It would be a traditional defamation problem.  Joe Paterno’s problem is exponentially made more severe by Facebook, by the internet, by the fact that this information is also online, but he would have had the problem anyway, same with Herman Cain.  He is an important enough person that the issues that he’s facing would have gained enough traditional press to where lots of people would have been aware of the allegations. 

Now, everyone has the same type of problem as Herman Cain and Joe Paterno, right?  Because, it used to be if the guy down the block from you, or one attorney in town didn’t think very well of you, then your reputation problem was fairly contained.  If that person down the block posted on the web, and now everyone that you potentially deal with in life can do a Google search and see what that person is saying about you, and if it happens to be false statements of fact, have this permanency of a Google search result on the web, now, you’ve got a hug problem.  So, in a way, we are all Joe Paterno and Herman Cain now, where our reputations as attorneys can turn on a dime.  The importance of protecting your reputation as a result has never been as important as it is today.  The importance of protecting your reputation as an asset for lawyers, doctors and everyone else has become critical.  And whereas before we used to, as attorneys, worry about reputation, I think now we need to worry about it at a much higher level.  So, the decisions that you, as a lawyer or as a law firm, make every day should be driven by the importance of reputation, and the knowledge and understanding that if you let your reputation get away from you, and it starts to run across the internet, that you may be forever impacted. 

That’s all for GAL Radio today. Go ahead and post our comments below on the importance of online reputation for lawyers and law firms in today’s internet-connected world, and we will see you next time. 


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