Who do you think you are?
Who does the world think you are?
Are the answers the same?
When you’re a person who has been at the centre of a public scandal, you find that nine times out of 10, the strangers reading about you on the internet have a completely different view of who you are and what you stand for despite what you know to be true. Your identity and personal brand have become inextricably linked to the scandal and with it comes pages of negative online stories, blogs and newspaper articles.
To compound matters further, even if your controversy took place a long time ago, prospective employers and business partners reading about it for the first time may treat the matter as if it happened yesterday.
So what do you do if you’re fed up of having to live with the distortion of your true identity and the negative effect it’s having on your personal brand?
After almost a decade of trying to reclaim my own previously positive public identity, I hope that sharing my experiences will help those of you in a similar position.
My scandal and public shaming
Nine years ago, I found myself at the centre of a local and national political storm. I had stood for election to my local council the year before, and had been successful. However, nearly a year after my election, I was informed that a complaint had been made against me and I was to be prosecuted for alleged misconduct during my election campaign.
Eventually, I found out what the nature of the alleged misconduct was. The allegations were bizarre, incomprehensible and laughable. I denied – and continue to deny – all of them. However, what I was accused of couldn’t be laughed off so easily in the eyes of the public. On top of the misconduct alleged, I had also been accused of behaving in a discriminatory nature and having caused harm to the personal safety of the person making the allegations.
As soon as my local newspaper published its first article on the story, followed by the Evening Standard and other media, I went from being a young, little known political activist, generally liked and respected, to becoming a national political hate figure and a grotesque and evil caricature.
Today, nine years on, the caricature still lives on the internet in an inaccurate Wikipedia entry and negative online articles and social media comment, written by strangers, as recently as last month.
The public shaming and subsequent destruction of my personal brand has been intense and unrelenting. It led me to go from someone who was always able to obtain prestigious professional positions, such as working for a European Commissioner or the Deputy Mayor of London - where I beat 99 other people to get the role - to someone many organisations would not even consider for an unpaid volunteer role.
At my lowest moment in the summer of 2008, taking anti-depressants and visiting the local job centre to sign on, I decided that I’d had enough. I had a life to lead and I would refuse to continue allowing it to be defined by negative online comment by ill-informed strangers. Ever since then, I’ve been on the road back towards reclaiming my true identity and resuscitating my personal brand.
Here are the five ways I’ve managed to reclaim my brand image and how others at the centre of a public controversy can do it too.
1. Own your own voice
It’s been striking that over the last 9 years, people I don’t know, who don’t know me or the people involved in my election controversy, have appointed themselves judge and jury in the court of online opinion. Strangers have written that I’m ‘not remorseful’, ‘in denial’ and my refusal to apologise for something that didn’t happen means I’m fair game to be labelled as ‘evil’, ‘a homophobe’ or ‘disgraced’.
I am not evil, a homophobe or disgraced and that is why I am glad I kept my own website and started a twitter account where my life, personality and interests can written about by me, in my own words. Social media may often be used to condemn people and to try and frame the narrative about them but, in my experience, it can and should also be used by all ‘shamed’ people to help them own their own voice. The lion is able to tell her own positive story, however negative the stories being told about her by the baying pack of hunters.
2. Be yourself
I am also determined to be myself online and not ‘position’ myself merely to impress or reassure others. I currently work in the legal field and see so many colleagues actively working to conceal any glimpse of their personality. Why? What’s the point of being on twitter if all you do is retweet dull stories from the mainstream press?
I see my personal twitter account as an online extension of me. That person is serious and loves to discuss politics and current affairs but also loves reading Glamour magazine, watching ITVBe’s ‘Dinner Date’, overdosing on constitutional law cases and listening to opera, as well as old skool garage. All those interests are not mutually exclusive as far as I’m concerned. If people meet me in real life then they know that I am an eclectic person with eclectic interests.
Why shouldn’t my ‘brand’ therefore be the same online? I think that to build and grow a following and capitalise on one’s personal brand, individuals and organisations need to be able to appeal to different types of people and keep them all interested in the same way as you would in ‘real’ life. You need to be yourself.
3. Keep it positive
Staying positive is also crucial to maintaining a well-received and respected online personal brand in my opinion, especially if you’ve been the centre of a controversy and people don’t expect you to be polite, courteous or respectful. In my case, though I still read the abusive tweets and blog comments I am sent, I just refuse to engage with them.
I was never - and will never be - a person who delights in arguing with and trying to humiliate others. I wouldn’t do it in real life and so I won’t do it online. Self-restraint – however upset an anonymous keyboard warrior had made you – is a must when you’re aiming to reclaim your personal brand.
4. Learn to trust people again
This is a big one. When your identity and reputation has been completely trashed online, you’re wary of other people. You think that everyone who meets you or tweets you has already googled you and you feel defensive. But living defensively is no way to live.
You have to give people the chance to demonstrate to you that they are prepared to look past your scandal – if they did google you - and embrace the talented professional and close future friend you have the potential to be. It’s what happened to me when I first made contact with the organisation where I currently work.
My colleagues just didn’t care about what was written about me online. They had met me - the real person - and actually talking to me informed them of who I really was and what I stood for. Almost 5 and a half happy years later and my colleagues’ original and continued trust in me has (almost) restored my pre-2007 confidence and meant that I have performed better than in my present role than in any other.
My colleagues and I joke that nearly everyone in the charity has now won an award because of the applications I enthusiastically submitted for them. Two years’ ago, I was humbled and astonished when they in turn secretly nominated me for the industry award that I won. If I had not put my trust in my colleagues and not walked into their office on a cold day in November 2010 with my CV in hand – after a raft of other volunteering and job application rejections – I would have never got to experience the most fantastic professional years of my life so far and showed the legal and charitable worlds what I am capable of.
5. Embrace the future
Though my reputation has not yet been fully restored, as I have not yet been formally cleared of the alleged political misconduct, I have to try and embrace the future and continue to put my best foot forward. However much I still get upset about my current online profile and distortion of my personal brand, I can - and I am - trying to take the positive steps outlined above to develop a strong counter narrative and build a new and more accurate public profile.
As the French novelist Anaïs Nin wrote:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”.
After nine years of (incorrectly) thinking that quietly hiding away from the online world would gradually and naturally restore my personal brand, I can say categorically that she is absolutely right. Even those who have been at the centre of a public scandal have the right to blossom and I intend to blossom.