Managing your reputation Online: in a world where candidates can’t escape the Internet, more are turning to pros to manage their online footprint

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In 1993, The New Yorker featured a famous cartoon depicting one dog typing on a computer while another looked on. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the first canine observed.

The average Internet user isn’t naive enough to think that sort of anonymity still holds true online, but political candidates face an altogether different reality. In the 21st century, the Internet is sure to tell voters whether you’ve acted like a dog, barked like a dog, or even just been accused of looking like a dog. And it can all happen within a matter of minutes.

It’s worth stopping to remember that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pioneered the use of Web 2.0 to deliver tangible results at the ballot box. Just three years later, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the blogosphere enable politicians to inspire and influence the public on a scale previously unknown.


It could be argued that the 2008 election represented a watershed moment for voters, converting many from passive media consumers to active media creators and empowering people to influence the political agenda. Blogs, tweets, and even the information kicked up from Internet search patterns are forcing politicians and candidates to respond.

This brave new world is not without peril for candidates. Gone are the days that a gaffe stops at the door of a town hall meeting. Now, even a minor misstep takes on a life of its own, ricocheting through social media circles and Twitter feeds right into national headlines, imprinting itself on the public consciousness in a way traditional media never could.

Not only can the Internet capture every gaffe, but it can store, mutate and magnify them in a way that leaves a long-lasting negative impact. Herein lies the genesis for an emerging sector of the political industry: Online Reputation Management, or ORM for short.

Just as online advertising and marketing practices long used in the corporate world are now seeing widespread use in the campaign space, this other favorite tactic of the business world is starting to catch on, too. In the corporate world, ORM has been common practice since the 1990s.

“At one time, a business could look forward to moving past negative news once the focus of the media turned elsewhere, but articles can now be readily accessed online and live on for an indeterminate amount of time,” explains Kat Blomquist, vice president at Rubenstein Associates. “Our clients come to us seeking help not only with responding to this information, but also proactively managing their online reputations.”

According to Michael Fertik, CEO of, scores of political candidates-from city council hopefuls to aspirants for federal office-have approached his firm since 2008 asking for help with managing their online profiles. The company is currently working for at least two 2012 presidential hopefuls.

It’s not mainstream quite yet, admits Fertik. But like search engine optimization (SEO), he thinks it will soon be a must-have service for candidate campaigns. Whether it’s downplaying negative search results or simply monitoring what’s being posted about a candidate in various venues online, ORM consultants are pitching their services as value added even if campaigns have already mapped out a digital strategy.

Take SEO, for example. It traditionally focuses on mapping a campaign website to search engine criteria so that search engines return a candidate’s website near the top. ORM goes a step further and it’s more computational than simply manipulating search engine algorithms. ORM firms are selling software and smart technology to candidates that effectively teach Google and other search engines more about a candidate and the issues they are supporting. Searches by voters will then turn up better quality results–at least from the candidate’s perspective.

“For candidates, ORM can be quite important, because for a lot of folks it’s the first time they’re going to find out about a candidate based on the results they see on a search,” says Reed Galen, a California-based political consultant.

Galen pointed to the difficulties former Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign has faced with his search results. Googling “Santorum” can be a bit of an unpleasant experience for some of his socially conservative backers.

As for whether to cast your lot with an ORM firm, Galen suggests that short of a fully-funded presidential campaign, most candidates are unlikely to have enough cash to devote any serious money to such services. Rather, he says, “I suspect it will be part of a large social media online package or set of services they want from whomever they arc hiring.”


Fertik’s pitch is that a few thousand dollars for ORM is a drop in a bucket for a major statewide campaign, particularly given the growing importance of securing one’s Internet profile. Still, there’s inherent danger in scrubbing the online past of a candidate. Some ORM companies will help politicians edit their Wikipedia profiles to downplay areas of controversy–a move that has landed some candidates in hot water and inevitably leads to a negative process story.

So far, only a small number of campaigns are employing ORM firms. But it’s something Fertik hopes to lay the groundwork for as the 2012 cycle progresses.

“ORM will be standard practice in the coming years,” he predcits. “It will be interesting to see what happens when most of the spending occurs.”

In this section

How to make the most of your email marketing effort.

7 ways for women candidates to look and sound their best.

Melanie Batley is a political journalist and commentator. She is a contributor to Total Politics magazine in the U.K.

Wired for Success: A self-taught nerd spearheads AOL’s big push into Canada

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In high school, Stephen Bartkiw always juggled his homework with at least two part-time jobs. Usually three. On weekends, during the day, he clerked in a RadioShack store in St. Catharines, Ont., just as the chain was introducing primitive computers. In the evenings, he cooked at local restaurants, mastering the art of cuisine. By the time he graduated in 1980, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: work as much as possible. He strolled out of the classroom and into a manager’s job at a troubled RadioShack store in the community of Dundas, Ont. Within months, the store was generating a profit — and he was still catering and cooking in his spare time. “I have been a workaholic since I was a kid. I love working,” says the 37-year-old chief executive officer of AOL Canada Inc. “I think I would be categorized as type A.” He pauses, almost apologetically. “But I don’t have the time to cook anymore: I do this pretty much 18 hours a day.”


His dedication to the Toronto-based Internet service provider paid off handsomely two months ago when the staid Royal Bank of Canada forged an alliance with AOL’s flamboyant parent, America Online Inc. Talks began last spring when senior bank officials trekked the few blocks from their elegant high-rise offices in downtown Toronto to Bartkiw’s headquarters in a roomy, restored warehouse. For the Royal, anxious to expand its e-commerce capability, the combination of Bartkiw’s expertise and his parent firm’s worldwide client base of 18 million was irresistible. At the announcement, the former RadioShack manager who became a largely self-taught computer nerd shared the spotlight with Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn and America Online U.S. executives.

It was a startling marriage of convenience. Bank officials took a big step into the electronic world, acquiring a 20-per-cent stake in AOL Canada for $89.5 million. The Royal Bank — with its U.S. banking and brokerage subsidiaries — has also forged a collaborative arrangement with AOL in both nations. Each company will now offer bundles of joint services to potential customers. AOL Canada also gets access to a potentially enormous customer base: the bank has 10 million clients worldwide. “This is a very good deal for both sides,” says Elliot Schreiber, chief operating officer for the Toronto-based think-tank Alliance for Converging Technologies. “The Royal has now invested in someone who understands e-commerce. AOL, in turn, will become the virtual connection to the bank — the context of banking. That will get it directly in touch with more Canadians, offering more services.”

And that is the strategic push which Bartkiw has sought since he joined AOL four years ago. Although 15 million of its 18 million clients reside in North America, AOL has only 130,000 household members in Canada. In contrast, there are 647,000 clients with Sympatico, an Internet service provider owned by five provincial telephone companies, including Bell Canada subsidiary Bell ActiMedia, which owns 75 per cent of it. AOL Canada needed more subscribers — and fast. “The bank deal will give us the opportunity to supercharge our mass-market efforts,” says Bartkiw. “The possibilities are staggering.”

The intense Bartkiw can recognize those possibilities because he has had such varied business experience. Oddly enough, his first real lesson in marketing came after RadioShack, in 1984, when he opened “a high-end restaurant in a low-end neighbourhood” of St. Catharines. A year later, in debt, he closed it. In that same year, he married Patricia, a pharmaceutical technician who has become a full-time homemaker, “the goddess of my life” — and mother of their 22-month-old son Julian. Since then, Bartkiw has put together complete computer packages for small companies, devised an Internet service for doctors, developed an online news service for Southam Inc. — and helped to launch the trial of high-speed Internet service at Rogers Cablesystems Ltd. “This is my passion: interactive services have had a marked impact on my life,” he says.

These days, AOL Canada, its U.S. parent and the Royal Bank are busily devising more possible services. The Royal Bank now has 420,000 clients who use its online banking and brokerage sites. AOL Canada will offer its services to those clients as well — in a deal that Bartkiw will only describe as a “unique combined offer.” AOL will also reach out to the bank’s 6.5 million credit-card customers. And it may install AOL kiosks in the 1,400 branches: representatives would demonstrate online banking and brokerage services — and treats such as instant messaging that AOL provides. “AOL has a very good consumer product and a good track record, but it did not have a good distribution chain in Canada,” says Eamon Hoey, senior partner of Hoey Associates Telecommunications Consulting Services Inc. “Now, they get a significant chain. AOL can even say: ‘Subscribe to AOL — and put it on your Royal Bank Visa card.'”

The deal could also kick start the fledgling Canadian e-commerce industry. Bartkiw calculates that Canada is two years behind the United States in terms of market evolution, with about 17 per cent of Canadian households paying for Internet access compared with about 28 per cent in the United States. He hopes the AOL-Royal Bank partnership will lure more customers to the Net. If there are more AOL clients, more retailers may be tempted to offer goods for sale. “Getting more Canadians online is critical,” he says.

At the Royal Bank, such talk is sweet. The 130-year-old bank suffered a huge blow last year when the federal government blocked its merger with the Bank of Montreal. As a backup strategy, it decided to move far more rapidly into the expanding world of e-commerce. The bank already owns an Atlanta-based online bank, Security First Network Bank, and a New York City-based online brokerage, Bull & Bear Securities Inc. Now AOL’s U.S. customers will be introduced to the Royal’s brokerage and banking services. And AOL and the bank can work together to secure the payments system — so that merchants and customers can do business online with less fear of fraud. “Small business represents a very strong constituency for us,” says Royal Bank vice-chairman Marty Lippert.


The Royal’s deal with AOL has not precluded a deal with another potential partner: Bell ActiMedia. Bell had been examining AOL because an alliance would combine the client base of AOL and Sympatico — and it would provide access to AOL’s U.S. content. But that approach remains on hold: 20 per cent of Bell Canada is owned by Chicago-based Ameritech Corp., which, in turn, is merging with the Texas-based telecommunications giant, SBC Communications Inc., to create the largest U.S. local phone company. So Bell ActiMedia is consulting with SBC to ensure that they find a mutually satisfactory partner to supply content to Sympatico — and state-of-the-art technology for the portal. “We want to do it fast because we want to maintain the leadership role that we have with Sympatico in Canada,” says ActiMedia president Serge Fortin. “AOL definitely has the content — but we have some problems with their technology.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Bank-AOL honeymoon is flourishing. What happens if the traditionally pokey bank culture clashes with the high-speed Internet world? AOL is a highly disciplined business, says Lippert, and the bank has some very entrepreneurial employees. Asked the same question, Bartkiw laughs. “We view this as a long-term deal, kind of a marriage,” he says. “And I plan to be married for a very long time.”

>>>  View more: The prince of the Beauce: Tory MP Maxime Bernier wowed voters. But can he fix productivity?

The prince of the Beauce: Tory MP Maxime Bernier wowed voters. But can he fix productivity?

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For a political neophyte, Maxime Bernier had surprisingly little trouble earning a seat in the House of Commons. Six months before the 2006 federal election, Bernier didn’t even have a campaign team in place. But on election night, he won the largest majority of any MP outside Alberta-capturing 67 per cent of the vote in his native riding of Beauce. The region, which stretches from Quebec City to Maine, is unlike any other in the province: it’s been referred to as “the Japan of Quebec” for the fierce entrepreneurialism that characterizes its residents. It’s also among the most resolutely federalist ridings in Quebec, despite an overwhelmingly francophone population. (A history of the region, published in 1974, was entitled Les Beaucerons, ces insoumis, or These Obstinate Beaucerons.) In returning the riding to the Conservative fold, Bernier not only unseated the Liberal who had represented the area for nearly a decade, he also reclaimed the seat once occupied by his father, Gilles Bernier, a wildly popular Tory MP during the Mulroney years and a man once nicknamed the “King of the Beauce.”

There’s little doubt the younger Bernier’s lineage boosted his profile. But it’s also clear the 44-year-old is imbued with the distinctive Beauceron spirit. Prior to his leap into politics, Bernier climbed the ranks in the real estate and insurance industries, becoming a vice-president at Standard Life. He first waded into public policy waters while working as an adviser to Quebec’s then-finance minister Bernard Landryin the late ’90s–though he says he never shared his boss’s sovereignist beliefs. But it was as vice-president of the libertarian Montreal Economic Institute that he cut his chops as a free-market evangelist and staunch opponent of government intervention, preaching the virtues of private health care and a flat tax on income. Even on the campaign trail in 2006, Bernier wasn’t afraid to ruffle social-democratic feathers in Quebec, once suggesting in an interview that “left-wing” environmentalists were to blame for high gas prices.


Now, as minister of industry, Bernier finds himself in one of the least sexy cabinet posts- an unusual placement for one of the fastest-rising Conservative stars in Quebec. The job is typically associated with corporate subsidies and mind-numbing slogs through federal regulation. But Bernier already managed something of a coup in his early days: he pushed ahead last December with plans to deregulate Canada’s local phone industry in spite of objections from the CRTC and widespread concerns the move could lead to higher prices for consumers.

It’s this kind of brash determination that’s earned Bernier the respect of his Tory colleagues and seems to have placed the rookie politician on the fast track up Tory cabinet ranks. Earlier this year, Bernier had been pegged as a likely replacement for embattled Rona Ambrose on the environment file and, more recently, he has been cited as a possible successor to Gordon O’Connor as minister of defence. What’s more, given his francophone roots, Bernier has been touted by some as a possible successor to Stephen Harper. But his future as a leader within the party may hinge on whether he can successfully tackle one of the toughest challenges still facing his department: the ever-widening productivity gap.

The disparity between the productivity of workers in Canada and those of the U.S. is one of the most stubborn issues facing Canadian policy-makers. Whereas Canadians tend to work about the same number of hours as their American counterparts, they produce nearly 20 per cent less wealth. Most worrisome is the fact that the gap has steadily widened since 200, leading some of the country’s leading voices on economic policy to sound the alarm. Last month, David Dodge, the governor of the Bank of Canada, said the country’s persistent failure to improve its record on productivity “has been very disappointing.” Sean Finn, chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, concurred, adding, “our own government is hurting our ability to [compete globally].”

Economists say part of the difficulty in drawing the public’s attention to the competitiveness problem is that, on the surface anyway, there is no problem. The number of new jobs created in June doubled initial estimates, which sent the loonie soaring. The country’s unemployment rate continues to hover around the six per cent mark–a 3 3-year low. Add to these a thriving resource sector, and prosperity seems like it should be the least of Canadians’ worries.

Still, for Anne Golden, the president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada, the time to act decisively on productivity and competitiveness is now. She says the high demand for Canadian resources has provided the government with a unique window of opportunity to address these pressing issues. But she warns the window may be rapidly closing. “It’s not that Canada, right this minute, is on a burning platform and that we’re in crisis,” she says. “What makes it urgent is the acceleration of global changes. Things are urgent in the sense that we will close off options to have prosperity that is sustainable in the future.”

That responsibility now falls on Bernier’s shoulders. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Bernier identified the productivity file as a priority within his ministry and said an aggressive corporate and personal tax-cutting agenda will form the basis of the government’s approach to the problem. “The government’s logic is quite simple,” he said. “Canadian business owners need money and capital if they want to invest in new machinery or state of the art technology in order to improve their productivity.” At the same time, Bernier expects something of a self-correction to take place thanks to the high Canadian dollar. Given that much of the machinery and equipment used in the manufacturing process comes from outside the country, he believes a strong loonie can help minimize the cost of investing in specialized technology.

But while Bernier’s approach may address the holy trinity of concerns from the business community (lower taxes, deregulation, and the free movement of goods and labour), some experts say it doesn’t go far enough. For instance, a recent essay by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Gordon Nixon, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, argues for a sharp increase in personal income and consumption taxes, and the slashing of corporate tax rates. They point to Scandinavian countries as an example: as a group, their tax take is nearly 1 1/2 times that of Canada, but business and investments are taxed at hall the Canadian rate. According to Martin and Nixon, high taxes impede corporations from “investing, innovating and creating high-paying jobs.” As the socialists have figured out, they write, “the way to tax corporate activity is to tax at a personal level the earnings that rich people collect from the ownership of corporations.”


But, as Jim Millway, the executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, notes, “Some of the tax-policy ideas that most economists agree with make for terrible politics.” Nobody is going to win an election in Canada–not to mention a majority government-with a platform calling for extreme taxation measures. Evidently well aware of this fact, Bernier and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty are exploring more palatable solutions, too. They recently announced the creation of a five-member expert panel charged with reviewing Canada’s competition and investment laws, which is expected to report back to the government by June 2008. And Bernier says he’s also working with the provinces to remove the barriers that prevent professional workers like engineers and nurses from working in other provinces without going through extra training. Ultimately, though, Bernier says there’s nothing like putting money in people’s pockets, and so the tax-cutting course is the smartest one. “Competitiveness and productivity are nice concepts,” he says, “but the fact remains that it’s the fiscal and economic environment that makes a business productive or not.”