by Richard Bistrong
“I bribed foreign officials, cooperated with international law enforcement & went to prison…”
So begins the first sentence of my LinkedIn profile. Truly. Which begs the question: what would possibly cause me to use those words on a page that stands as one of my key online profiles, visible to anyone searching for information about me through Google and other services?
The answer (my own story) is a lesson in reputation management for any readers who have clients and associates, or who, first-hand, might have suffered reputation damage - that thing we most fear in this digital age.
My particular journey has been filled with numerous successes and failures, but it was the failures that ended up in print and digital media (and I am speaking of pages and pages of information available for anyone to find online via search).
If I look at the journey as the “good, bad and ugly,” only the “bad and ugly” ended up online. But does my
“bad and ugly” offer a teachable tipping point for others? I think does.
It starts with two words:
be authentic. And then three: embrace the past.
What you might find (and here the experiment abounds with risk, vulnerability and humility) is that by embracing what actually caused the damage (not minimizing or hiding it), others might find your story a real-world lesson that provides a pivot point for their own understanding and benefit.
You might think, as Dorie Clark states in her wonderfully compelling book,
Stand Out, that your “ideas may not measure up” because of prior events which are now all over the search engines. But does that same experience provide an opportunity for others to “get outside the ivory tower” by detailing a real-world journey that provides lessons which are “accessible and actionable?”
I think it does.
...by embracing what actually caused the damage (not minimizing or hiding it), others might find your story a real-world lesson that provides a pivot point for their own understanding and benefit.
Is it easy? Certainly not. Would I rather the first sentence of my Linkedin profile be different? Of course. Yet, as Ms. Clark states, thought leadership involves a “willingness to be brave, open up, and share yourself,” adding “it's a willingness to risk having your ideas shot down, because you genuinely believe they can help others.”
For those who have had past events that you would like to forget or erase, putting it out there in your own words is the type of authenticity and vulnerability that probably goes against every one of your personal and professional instincts. But think about it. Don’t we all learn by our mistakes? So, why shouldn't yours be amplified and articulated for the benefit of others? What greater reward could you think of as having your own ordeal as an example for others to avoid similar peril?
A personal, professional and reputational setback gives you a view and perspective from the trenches that is unique. I spent ten years as an International Sales VP, five years as an international law enforcement cooperator, and fourteen months in federal prison. It’s not exactly the resume I thought about when I graduated The University of Virginia with a Masters Degree in Foreign Policy, but there is it, right on the first page of Linkedin. As Ms. Clark says, such experiences now provide an opportunity to share your perspective where you “see things differently from anyone else.” Why not put it out there?
Don’t we all learn by our mistakes?
Not everyone will agree, and therein is the vulnerability, but that’s part of being genuine. Some will discount, diminish and discard your message because of your past, but that’s okay, as long as you remain authentic. As Ms. Clark well states, “the more you become yourself, rather than following someone else’s plan, the greater your chance of doing something different that makes a lasting impact.”
I have now been interacting with the anti-bribery compliance community for fifteen months, mostly through writing and speaking engagements, but also through my own blog. So, how do I gauge Ms. Clark’s “impact?” For one, I have received very positive feedback from those events. But more significant, and motivational, has been the encouragement and positive reinforcement from others. The emotional impact of comments that I have received after these forums far exceeds any sense of satisfaction that I experienced from the world of international sales. It is one thing to hope that one’s past might be of benefit to others, it is another to actually hear it and read it.
The power of comments such as “I was moved by your experience”, “you speak from the heart” and “you really gave us something to think about” cannot be understated. Eighteen months ago I was on the bottom bunk of a two-man cube at the Federal Prison Camp at Lewisburg, and I now call some of the thought leaders in the compliance community my friends.
But it can't always be so rosy, right? However, when there is disagreement, and there will be, that’s not an excuse to retreat or deflect. It’s just another potential opportunity to engage with others. I will never forget when one of my social media posts prompted a very harsh and reactive comment. While the pronouncement was not personally disparaging, it was quite heated and unforgiving in terms of its opposition. So, what to do?
...when there is disagreement, and there will be, that’s not an excuse to retreat or deflect. It’s just another potential opportunity to engage with others.
thanked the individual for his comment and invited him to guest write on my blog, as to give him an even greater opportunity to express his views. Guess what? He came back to me later in the week with an apology that he had not fully read about my experience and didn't understand the context of my original post. He withdrew his comment, is working on his guest piece, and we now e-mail and exchange perspectives quite often.
Sure, there are alternatives. Instead, you can hire "reputation managers" and "experts” who have no first-hand experience of what it is like to go through this type of journey. You can even hire one of the many .com companies which “guarantee” (until you read the fine print), that they will push all the "bad stuff” to the back pages of search. You won’t even have to write a single page of authentic content, they will do it all for you. Sounds really easy, why not?
Lets start with that fact that over the past decade Google and other search engines have already encountered these tactics, and have improved their algorithms to favor authenticity. Moreover, rest assured, they will punish artificial or even “gray hat” content. How do I know? I once owned and operated a boutique marketing firm, where I managed the digital content for a group of small companies. One was a doctor who had an awful patient review which was sitting right there on the top of first page search. The bad review was not moving, and was damaging his practice as the good reviews were filtered out by this particular online review service.
So I procured the services, on his behalf, of one of the .com reputation management companies, at great expense. After the very, very fast talking sales manager turned me over to operations, it was an unrewarding and disturbing experience. While their “tried and tested” services would temporarily move the bad review off of first page, maybe for a few days, perhaps a week at best, it would return. When I queried operations, it was “upgrade your package” for better results, and we did. The result was no different.
So for those of you who read this and who face current reputational consequences due to prior events and conduct, you can go ahead and fork over five figures to a reputation management company, or spend under $50.00 for a good blog template and write about it. Tell everyone what you learned from your front-line experience. See what the “bad and ugly” might bring for the “good” of others.
Don’t worry about the search engines, just be authentic. And get started!
If you don’t know where or how to begin, lets continue the conversation and e-mail me at
Richard Bistrong is the CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC, and consults, writes and speaks about anti-briberycompliance issues from his experiences as an International Sales VP. Richard cooperated with international law enforcement for five years as part of his DOJ Plea Agreement for violating the FCPA. Richard ultimately served fourteen and a half months in federal prison. He has been a JD Supra contributor since June 2014. Richard can be reached via his JD Supra Profile and his website at www.richardbistrong.com .]
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