Woburn Safari Park scandal flushes out "electronic reputation management"

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July/August 2011:

LONDON,  SEATTLE–Growing almost unnoticed amid the buzz of the Internet, Worldwide Web,  Twitter,  Facebook,  and other social media,  the electronic information management industry appears to have eclipsed the annual income of animal charities worldwide even before most pro-animal campaign strategists knew what it was.

Now electronic information management is running effective interference for animal advocacy targets,  the Times of London recently discovered.

The story began with a hard-hitting June 2010 exposé series by Times reporter Daniel Foggo,  detailing conditions at the Woburn Safari Park,  in Bedfordshire.  Owned by the Duke of Bedford,  the 40-year-old drive-through zoo attracts half a million visitors per year. Inspectors from the British Department for Environment,  Food and Rural Affairs assailed the Woburn Safari for keeping lions in a “very crowded” night pen for 18 hours a day in winter, for painfully injuring sea lions’ eyes by keeping them in excessively chlorinated water,  and for housing a bull elephant in an allegedly unsafe enclosure from which he had recently escaped.

The Foggo series briefly created an online sensation–and then disappeared.

Billy Kenber of the Times investigated. “A few weeks after the stories were published,” Kenber revealed on June 1,  2011,   “the park hired the services of Keith Griggs,  52,  who runs ReputationManagement.me,  The Times can disclose.  On his website,   Griggs described how he started working  for ‘a wildlife park’ in July last year,  when three of the first 10 search results for the park were news articles about the allegations.  Within a week there were no longer any links to critical stories on the first page of results.  A few months later there was only one negative report in the first five pages of search results.”

Griggs took the description of his work off of his web site after Kenber connected it to the Woburn Safari Park,  but the park had already “admitted using the reputation management service,  saying that it felt that the articles had ‘unfair and inaccurate’ information,”  Kenber reported.
“The park has since opened a new lion house,”  Kenber mentioned,  before explaining what Griggs did.

How it works

“Online ‘reputation management’ agencies promise to suppress negative search results by driving them down the rankings,”  Kenber explained.  “They typically use thousands of social networking profiles–set up using false names and operated using computer software to simulate the behaviour of a real person–to talk about and link to more positive results,  pushing them above the negative stories.”  The Google search engine,  for instance,  can be manipulated,  Kenber continued,   because even though it “uses a complicated algorithm taking into account dozens of criteria to rank results for a search term,  one of the key factors is the number of links that a web page has from other websites.”

Thus bogus links can boost the visibility of puffery–or,  conversely,  of negative information,  a reverse reputation management technique used by some political tacticians.  “As more than 90% of users look only at the first Google results page,  and only a tiny fraction go beyond the third page,  well-hidden results are seldom read,”  wrote Kenber.

Confirmed DogsBite.org founder Colleen Lynn,  a professional web site designer who has had occasion to investigate reputation management techniques,  “There’s no way to remove things [from electronic media],  so you have to push them down.  You need the ‘select’ expensive plans to do these things successfully,”  Lynn added. “Unless someone has $30,000-plus to shell out annually,  he/she won’t get the works.  The high-end products,”  used by major corporations and exceptionally affluent individuals,  “cost dearly.  It’s only recently that public relations firms have gotten in on the action,”  Lynn said.

But some reputation management service providers have been soliciting clients from among targets of animal advocacy for several years. “Reputation management companies describe typical small-business as clients such as a pet store targeted by animal rights activists,”  reported John Tozzi of Bloomberg Business World in April 2008,  mentioning that two different firms cited animal rights activists as a concern.

Beyond Indigo Pets,  a company offering “veterinary website design and marketing for animal care professionals,”  lists “online reviews and reputation management” third among offered services.
How widespread the use of reputation management against animal advocacy campaigns might be is anyone’s guess.  As of July 7,  2011, however,  the first critical mention of the Woburn Safari Park that ANIMAL PEOPLE found was on the fourth search page.  The first mention of Foggo’s exposé was on the fifth search page.  But a Daily Telegraph summary of the Kenber exposé of Woburn Safari Park employment of an electronic reputation manager popped up seventh on the first page.

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