We have a high-profile client we have worked for since 2010. We manage his day to day public relations (he does a few interviews a year), and largely respond to incoming inquiries. He’s a successful private person and is mentioned in passing regularly in the media (as he wants it). Recently, our 40-something-year-old mystery man made the decision to finally tie the knot and get engaged to his longtime live-in girlfriend. At their engagement party, she cornered me and said to me: “It bothers me tremendously that when someone googles his name, it shows he’s married. Get it removed.”

Now, since he’d never been married (and is regarded in media circles as a playboy), I figured it could be done. He’s high-profile, well known – and hey, it’s the truth. Knowing the seriousness of the matter, he prepared a notarized letter saying he’s never been married, and a lawyer letter stating the same; we attached multiple media clippings, and even provided his (eight-figure) tax returns showing the box where he checked single. We waited for Google to answer.

Google’s terrifying response arrived today:

The data appearing in search results is derived from an algorithm that indexes content available on the Web and evaluates it based on hundreds of variables. Manual edits to search results are extremely rare. Google isn’t publishing information; we’re facilitating access to information that’s already on the Web. The problem is there is a news source who lists your client as having a spouse. I suggest contacting those publications and asking them to issue a correction. If they make a correction or remove the references, the right information should eventually get picked-up by our algorithms.

Once we received the reply, we discovered that seven years ago a newspaper listed his girlfriend at the time as his wife. The man is literally mentioned in hundreds of articles a month, and he had never seen this article which, incidentally, is currently buried on page 50 of his search results. He didn’t recall the article – and naturally doesn’t read every story he’s mentioned in. Even with a statement from the woman mentioned in the article as being his wife, they wouldn’t budge.

Now we are off to try and get corrections from a newspaper that wrote a story on him seven years ago. Let’s hope they make the corrections without a lawsuit (which would cause more media on this issue), and hope, as Google said, that “If they make a correction or remove the references, the right information should eventually get picked-up by our algorithms.” If…and eventually.

One wonders how a “normal” person who can’t afford a PR firm and lawyers, or to get an answer from Google, can handle these things. It’s a scary catch 22: Even a celebrity can’t get the truth out online without clearing their name in previous tier-1 media.

Take another scenario. We’re working for the CEO of a mid-sized company whose identity has been stolen. Someone has completely taken her identity — but it went on so long and so efficiently, that the “real” person is having trouble reclaiming all her profiles, websites, photos, etc. There is no number to call and fix everything — it’s going to take her several months to a year, and tens of thousands of dollars, to get it all reclaimed.

I’ts odd — non-traditional ground rules on the internet, which go beyond regular public relations or regular online reputation management. While one can understand the logic in how search engines have to manage their search content, there is no reset button and no easy way to fix things in the years ahead.

In the meantime, I have to go get yelled at by my client’s fiancée.

The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where the public is deprived of independent access to information. But where all news comes at second-hand, where all testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not realities themselves but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts and not what actually is.

 Walter Lippman, “Liberty and the News”

Truths are more likely to be discovered by one man than by a nation.

Descartes

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