PR should rise above the right to be forgotten

The European Court of Justice’s controversial ruling about the ‘right to be forgotten’ online is now in force. And what is one of the first examples we see of it being used to whitewash reputations? A six-year-old article by the BBC’s Robert Peston on a fallen Wall Street banker has been removed by Google from its search results.

And we have also seen the first businesses pop up to help people disappear into the online ether. For example, Reputation VIP allows customers to ‘control their online reputation’.

All of this has worrying implications for our industry. It raises a false impression that this most unworkable rule provides some kind of safety net for misbehaving corporations or loose-tongued executives – a chance to go back and redact unwanted comments or events from your public profile. Well, it doesn’t. As Robert Peston pointed out to millions of his followers today, you only have to search for his story on, as  opposed to, and ta da…there it is.

The best way to treat this rule is also a lesson in how to manage your corporate reputation. Be proactive, not reactive. Rather than going back and desperately trying to wipe mistakes from the past, isn’t it better to avoid making them in the first place?

It’s the same as in a media interview: never say anything that you wouldn’t want to be quoted on. Don’t wait for a potentially damaging quote to appear in print and then try to have it struck from the record. Saying the right thing…and doing the right thing….will create a living history that will enrich your reputation in the real and online world.

There’s a good marketing mantra on this: ‘a brand is a promise’, meaning that everything a company says, and more importantly, does, should deliver on the values and promises of its brand. OK, no one is perfect, but surely going back and trying to brush wrongs under the carpet isn’t – by definition – a way forward?

So, it must be hoped that the corporate world doesn’t latch onto the ‘right to be forgotten’ as another tool in its communications armoury. Fallen popstars and disgraced politicians are one thing, but when we get into the realm of airbrushing online histories in the name of corporate reputation, then we have surely taken a wrong turn.

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