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PR for the People

Image management—not just for celebrities anymore

Author Kris Frieswick

industry

A few years ago, Pete Kistler, an information management and technology major at Syracuse University, set out to secure an internship during his summer break. What he found, to his dismay, was that not a single company wanted to take him on. Later, he found out why: Pete Kistler the college kid shared his name with Pete Kistler the convicted drug dealer, and prospective employers were having trouble distinguishing between the two.

So, reasonably enough, Kistler went to a reputation management firm to clear his name. A company rep told him that they could do this easily enough, via a kind of search engine minimization.

The plan was to produce so much glowing material about Good Pete that Bad Pete would simply get crowded out of the picture. The only downside was the fee: $5,000 a month—enough to keep Kistler in ramen noodles for a decade. “It was ludicrous,” he says.

To most of us, it’s no great surprise that a student might not be able to afford a service like this. Reputation management, after all, is a rarefied offshoot of PR, the purview of celebrities and CEOs. But Kistler needed his online profile cleansed, or his job prospects would remain dim. So he asked Patrick Ambron, a fellow Syracuse student and self-trained search engine expert, for help in pushing Bad Pete into a dark corner of the Internet.

It occurred to the two friends that there were many more people out there with a similar dilemma. So, over the course of a year, living on a diet of oatmeal, tuna and pasta (“because we could buy it in bulk”), they developed the software that would help them launch BrandYourself.com in the spring of 2012. By late 2013, the service had more than 250,000 users, 25 employees and $1.5 million in venture capital.

“Before us, reputation management was notoriously ineffective and overpriced,” says Ambron. “We wanted to give people somewhere to turn.”

The major difference between Ambron and Kistler’s site and traditional public relations is that, thanks to the software they created, it automates the work of creating and posting desirable content, rather than relying on humans to take care of it. This allows the duo to provide services similar to those of their competitors, but at much lower cost.

For users wanting to post unlimited content, BrandYourself.com charges $80 a year. Its “concierge” service—in which, as with its pricier rivals, trained staffers handle the process for you—starts at $199 a month. For access to software that will allow you to create and post up to three pieces of high-ranking positive content, there is no charge at all.

While giving stuff away might not seem like the best business plan, Ambron insists that the strategy has worked, creating a pipeline for customers to move on to BrandYourself.com’s paid services. In fact, he says, “we’re cutting into our competitors’ business for the higher-profile people who can afford to pay.”

The game-changing aspect of all this is the idea that effective image control should be available to all. A typical client, says Ambron, is a young man who worked as a “grunt” for a financial services company and who, after a deal the firm structured went south (through no fault of his own), found himself being blacklisted by a client bent on revenge—which, in turn, made it hard for him to find another job.

Other representative clients include small business owners who’ve been slandered by rivals, kids who’ve been arrested for unfortunate college pranks, victims of rumor-mongering ex-lovers and, of course, Kistler.

Today, six years or so after he had so much difficulty landing that internship, Kistler has pushed his delinquent namesake so far down the search engine rankings that the problem has effectively disappeared. As for Ambron, he buried a guy who’d picked up the domain name patrickambron.com after Ambron forgot to renew it (“Rookie error,” he says) and tried to sell it back to him for an extortionate price. The gambit worked: Ambron ended up getting the domain name back at a reasonable cost.

While discussing this, Ambron repeats an old computer nerd joke, which sums up the strategy behind this particular strain of reputation management. “Where do you hide a dead body?” he says, grinning. “On the third page of Google.”

KRIS FRIESWICK, a New York–based editor and writer, very much regrets the candid holiday snaps she shared on Facebook a few years ago.

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