Links & likes: could they be ruining your reputation?

Perhaps you’ve seen the online quote attributed Abraham Lincoln – the one that goes "you can’t believe everything you read on the internet."

As absurd as this mash up is, its point is well taken and should make us consider the veracity of content marketing and thought leadership we receive. It also should make us check our own practices as we try to keep pace in a furious sprint to create new and fresh content.   

Stop and think: are you taking the advice, tips and counsel that permeates your inbox, LinkedIn or Twitter feed at face value? Are you clicking through the links – the subtle signposts of an expert at work – to see if what is being cited is accurate and reputable? Beyond intuition and personal experience, how do you decipher between what is brilliant and what is bunk? 

Recently, I took up the link-verifying approach while reading an online article regarding website development in a highly regarded publication. This bold subheading caught my attention:

"94 percent of comments in a recent study said that people mistrusted a website based on its design elements over its content."

As someone who relies heavily on design partners to frame the messaging and content I create, this seemed noteworthy – and perhaps shareworthy (a driving purpose behind content marketing pieces like this). Intuitively I know that good design plays a significant role in positioning content and shaping the user experience. But 94 percent?

Prior to sending the post to a design colleague, I felt compelled to dig deeper – and I’m glad I did.

By following a link related to the 94 percent stat, I was directed to a Forbes article published a year ago, which in turn linked to the original research study. That’s where I learned the truth about this stat and just how focused the research was:

  • The study was specific to health websites
  • It only observed 15 people
  • All participants were women
  • All participants “faced a risky health decision”
  • All participants lived in United Kingdom
  • The study was published in 2004 

Each of the six bullets challenge the credibility of the bold generalized statement I read. Then there is the rapid change in how we define the online user experience 12 since the study. Certainly the participants in this study did mistrust website design, and perhaps there are universal truths to be made about design and trustworthiness. However, this isn’t the link to use to make the case about web design, in general, in 2016.   



Just like you, I read plenty of content and often have the impulse to react, share or shed light where I think it could be helpful to others. When we read articles in what we believe to be reputable publications, we make assumptions about accuracy and fact checking. We don’t have time to read all of the links and citations to validate the author as a trustworthy thought leader. We see the author is well published and a regular contributor, which signals some level of subject-matter expertise.

As the age of DIY and brand journalism plows forward with platforms that thrive on new, self-published content, the journalism institute Poynter has been documenting the rapid decline of editorial professionals in newsrooms over the last few years here, here and here. The point is that with significantly fewer fact-checking professionals ensuring what we read is accurate, we must become more diligent and critical readers. 

As content marketers and thought leaders, we must earn the trust of our audience so they return to us with regularity. That means we owe it to them to take the time to be thorough and accurate. That may seem counter-intuitive given the perceived simplicity and speed in which new content arrives and the recommendations on how often you should post content (advice from content marketing thought leaders, of course). Keep in mind: 

  • If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth writing well. Take your time, edit and revise.
  • If it’s worth publishing, then tell your best story. Your reputation as a thought leader requires it.

Our reputation and credibility are always on the line – whether we create the post or decide to pass along the commentary of others.



Mistakes will happen – even among the most reputable journalists and publications. Be helpful and alert content creators to a possible issue or correction that would improve their piece. When we nudge respectfully, authors should see that we’ve taken the time to improve rather than attack their piece.  

When I reached out to the author suggesting the article was intriguing but this data point was misleading, the author responded with gratitude and quickly changed the article. Now readers get a better story and the author has a credible piece of thought leadership where the opinion remains unaltered and misleading links no longer exist.

The four-letter word that can kill credibility

Communication leaders don’t have to be in their roles for very long before they are confronted with a statement that goes something like this: 

 “We need you to find a way to put a positive spin on this.”

Spin is the one word that completely undermines what the communication function – and the PR profession – stands for. Whether it was said in jest or with every intent to sidestep the real issues at hand, spin is a trigger word the puts one's role and relationship with leaders on high alert.

Communicators are not alone in this. Our financial colleagues have a similar reaction to hearing language such as "fudge with the numbers" or "go cook the books" regardless of the context in which it was said.

But given this gaffe, it's important to give leaders the benefit of the doubt knowing that greater insight on what reputation management is and isn’t can go a long way. When corrected immediately and with resolve, leaders gain a better appreciation into how valuable their communication counsel is to protecting the brand in addition to simply promoting it.

But leaders who fail to recognize the err of their ways by advocating a less than truthful telling of any story are setting themselves up for irreparable damage – personally and for the brand.

Few companies enjoy lasting success when there is intent to spin news that isn’t deemed favorable. Every company has highs and lows. How those fluctuations get handled speaks volumes.

Further, bad news doesn’t age well, and the longer it is concealed the worse it will be when it comes to light. And it almost always does.

Spin is the four-letter word that should prompt the ethical communicator to pause and think twice. It’s typically an indicator into a leadership ethos and begs the question whether the values painted on the company wall are true or simply an outcome of a group exercise.

This is why communicators owe it to the leaders they serve and support to confront them on this issue and help them think strategically about the value of clear, concise and credible communication.

The white lie, the half-truth and the diversion tactic all constitute a lack of honesty, and when thrust upon employees, customers or the media, each audience will call it what it is. Worse yet, it erodes credibility from the inside, hollowing out a company’s values and culture while creating much larger issues.  

There’s a lot at stake packed into this one word – the ethical behavior of communicators, the credibility of leadership, and the lasting reputation of the organization. When leaders turn to their trusted communication counsel during challenging times, answers won’t necessarily be easy. But they should take great comfort in knowing that challenges will be met head on and with veracity, keeping in mind that this too shall pass. That's not the case when choosing to equate public relations as spin.

Next time you hear (or use) the word spin, think of it this way: in its simple definition, to spin is to go around and around, often at a dizzying speed.  Ironically, the things that people most often speak of spinning are the very things they don't want coming back around at all. Best to handle them the right way, the first time.