Extreme Online Reputation Management: WVU, Mylan, & Governor’s Office Edition

In getting ready for the Next Generation Marketing series across West Virginia this spring, I began thinking about my presentation on Engagement and Dialogue. In it, I will go over the premise and some recommendations for online reputation management. The last time I spoke about that publicly was at the Online Marketing: Innovations that Work marketing conference in Southpointe, PA when I delivered They Said What? Protect Your Reputation with Search Engine Marketing.

I really want to do a post on the subject – if only there were some really big public scandal involving reputations being changed on the internet that involved West Virginia and the Pittsburgh, PA area. Hmmm. Let’s see. [shuffles through piles of old newspapers by desk – who needs the internet?]

Oh that’s right – how about Heather Bresch? Do a search on her name, particularly a news search, and see what you come up with. For those readers either too lazy to do the search or too enthralled with my hypnotic musings (read: put you in a catatonic state), it comes down to the following:

Ms. Bresch was promoted to Chief Operating Officer of Mylan, Incorporated in October 2007. In doing some fact checking for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a reporter named Patricia Sabatini called West Virginia University to verify that Ms. Bresch had received her Masters of Business Administration there. WVU could not find any record of it.

The pieces of information that have the makings of a good scandal, but may or may not actually mean anything include: Ms. Bresch is the daughter of Governor Joe Manchin; she has previous dealings with WVU President Mike Garrison; and Mylan’s head is WVU’s largest benefactor.

Fast forward two seasons.

Last week WVU rescinded her degree, which was recognized / awarded last fall after the initial story broke. Two top WVU administrators, College of Business and Economics Dean R. Stephen Sears and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Gerald E. Lang resigned today. Additional fallout in one form or another is likely.

Ground Rules

Now before I move any further, let me clue you in on some ground rules I laid out for myself:

1. I am going to write this without any bias or come as close as I possibly can. West Virginia is a very close-knit state, or as Mary Hunt-Lieving recently told a group of young professionals at the Generation West Virginia launch party, in West Virginia, it’s not six degrees of separation, it’s two. Therefore I’m going to stay out of this as best as possible even though I know folks involved with this issue and these institutions. And I fully expect at least one of my friends to call me names for doing so.

It also means, no super cool photoshopped pictures that cost me an hour’s worth of time and add little to the post. I was thinking based on the title of a “Extreme Home Makeover” collage with some of the principal players and Ty Pennington. Either that or an X Games theme with lots of Mountain Dew and maybe the idiot bullies from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (please don’t ask why I saw that).

Having said that, feel free to comment however you think appropriate.

2. No linking to any reports or stories for this article. You read what’s out there – there’s no shortage of material – and come to your own conclusion.

3. I am going to write about this strictly from an online reputation management perspective.

Okay, with those rules set, let’s look at what happened.

The Ostrich Approach

When the story originally, broke, it led to several internal meetings, but – for the most part – no comment for the press or any real proactive response.

In the old days, that was fine. Think about it – it’s pretty much just a West Virginia story. About the only paper that picked it up in any sort of negative way (from WVU’s and Ms. Bresch’s perspectives – correct me if I’m wrong) until recently was the paper that broke the story: the Post-Gazette. Since the paper’s in Pittsburgh, not that many folks in WV would have the paper delivered. Stick your head in the sand for six months and when you pull it back up, the story’s probably gone away.

But in today’s age, anyone can access that original expose piece and all in the series that followed it online. So whether you live in the hollers of southern West Virginia, the hills of the Eastern Panhandle, or anywhere else across the state, as long as you had an internet connection, you could read those stories (and not have to pay the two quarters to boot).

And not just West Virginia, either. With national exposure from multiple stories in papers like the New York Times, this issue will likely start getting major mainstream national press.

Basic Online Reputation Management Techniques Avoided

While some things can still be done, all parties facing the reputation attack – WVU’s President Mike Garrison and various administrators, Mylan, Ms. Bresch, and Governor Joe Manchin (let’s call them Team West Virginia since that’s a lot to type; the Post-Gazette can be Team Pittsburgh for a sort of a Back Yard PRawl – get it, that’s Brawl, but with a PR instead. Sorry no ban on bad puns in my ground rules) – really missed the boat on some things that could have been done from the beginning. Wow, was that really just one sentence?

Instead they did virtually nothing. For example:

1. WVU President Mike Garrison has a blog. This is a very forward thinking strategy for advancing the ideals of the University and I applaud him for it. This would have been the ideal place to join the conversation and discuss the matter. Discuss what? I don’t care – just something. It could be something like, “we take this very seriously…we’re looking into…have an independent investigation….” Get people looking to your blog for information. Make it show up in the search engines. Otherwise, it will be mostly the things that are negative from Team West Virginia’s perspective.

Instead, the first post about the subject did not appear until April 24th. And on that post, there are two dozen almost universally negative comments that were posted…but not one response in the comments from Mr. Garrison. You made the good first step of writing about it, sir. Now just follow up and respond directly.

Update: Read Mr. Garrison’s email to WVU employees.

2. Governor Joe Manchin sends out emails frequently on everything from business reports to news on our military personnel. What an incredible tool for communicating directly with the people! Within three hours of WVU football coach Rich Rodriguez leaving for Michigan, the Governor emailed the State. Yet, to date not one email has been sent out about this issue, and as far as I can tell, only one quote on the subject has been given to the press.

3. Mylan, Incorporated offers its Web site visitors email alerts and houses an entire media center, but it has repeatedly offered no comment on the subject. It’s only change was removing the MBA information from her site bio. Ms. Bresch herself has only spoken with the press twice and neither time with the paper investigating her situation.

Bottom line, folks should have joined the conversation at the beginning or at least much earlier than they did.

Advanced Methods of Online Reputation Management

Beyond just getting in the game and utilizing some of the tools already at their disposal, Team West Virginia should have gone on the attack early. Issued press releases, written about it on their sites, given interviews. But, like many, many companies these days, they didn’t do anything until after the crisis had peaked.

So much more could have been done in concert with whatever internal discussions, investigations, and changes occurred, such as:

1. Run some paid search campaigns. Think people are searching for “Bresch” right now on the search engines? Go to Google Trends and see the spikes in traffic.

Related to this, be careful how you’re advertising. The Post-Gazette runs Google content ads on its site. When looking up one of the old articles today, I saw this:

It’s possible you can’t read that because I had to shrink it down. In case you can’t, WVU is advertising MBA degrees for its Integrated Marketing Communications on this story entitled, “MBA mystery in Morgantown:Questions raised over how WVU granted Mylan executive her degree.”

2. You have WVU fans and friends of all involved individuals out there. Encourage them to go out and post / comment on sites and blogs. Tell people to be patient, that they know these people and they’re good folks. Whatever they’re comfortable saying.

3. Get aggressive – start a Web site on just this subject. Nothing else. Address it head on.

4. Help other folks writing good things (or neutral, or nothing at all, but related to the material) optimize their sites through search engine optimization. Get everything else pushed down in the news.

Conclusion

Those are just a few of the things that should have been done and some that could still be done even in this late stage. Dozens of other tactics exist. You just need a good plan and good execution – come to think of it, I can think of a local West Virginia firm close to Pittsburgh that specializes in online reputation management and I hear they’re taking on clients.

Or if you just want to learn more about joining the conversation, check out the Next Generation Marketing executive series, coming to a West Virginia town near you.

Final note bene: I really want all of this to be accurate. If I missed anything or misstated anything, please let me know and I’ll do a quick update. Please send links if possible so I can verify.

Justin Seibert

About The Author

Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, AdAge, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

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