Public figures exploit 'right to be forgotten' at their own peril

It might be tempting for business executives or celebrities to take advantage of the "right to be forgotten" ruling in Europe. But they risk the "Streisand effect" if they do so.

Public figures might soon be tempted to take advantage of the benchmark "right to be forgotten" ruling in the European Union and ask Google to delist links. Comms experts say that would not only conflict with the principles of free speech, but also inadvertently call more attention to the negative search result.

In May, Europe’s top court ruled that search engines must delete "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant" links from particular search results when requested by someone mentioned in an article. What constitutes inadequate or irrelevant information is up for interpretation, but it could potentially include details of CEO’s messy divorce or other less-than-flattering information or gossip.

Google, the dominant search engine in Europe, has so far received more than 70,000 removal requests since posting a form at the end of May.

The process has played out in a very public way to this point. Members of the news media have been notified by Google when an article will be delisted, resulting in journalists reporting about it.

After BBC economics editor Robert Peston learned an article he wrote seven years ago about the ouster of former Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal would be subject to removal, he wrote a blog post about it. Numerous international media outlets, including some in the US, subsequently reported on his case, and many of those pieces link to the original Merrill Lynch article.

Stephen Waddington, director of Ketchum Europe and president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, says the Merrill Lynch example demonstrates that "you can actually end up drawing more attention to content because the article isn’t actually removed from the Internet."

"It is just removed from Google’s search index," he explains. "That is why we’re seeing the Barbra Streisand effect coming into play."

The "Streisand effect," coined by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, refers to what happened when the singer tried to have public photos of her Malibu house taken down in 2003. Once the case became public, views of the photos skyrocketed from six to more than 400,000 in a month.

"The right to be forgotten is like the Streisand effect codified into law," agrees Phil Gomes, SVP of Edelman Digital. "There might be a set of marketers who are saying, ‘Awesome, that one thing that keeps dinging us every year we can get rid of now.’ They can think that way but they do so at their peril."

However, the ruling, and its early repercussions, underscores a larger issue for the PR industry: Stakeholders looking for ways to control information on the Internet.

"I am fascinated by mechanisms of control, whether from government, regulators, or even corporate communications departments, to address something that is inherently not controllable," Gomes explains.

Kristen Sharkey, EVP of technology and business services at Makovsky, cautions that "some activist media have taken to Twitter to announce individual requests."

"The tactic is spotty at best, as some stories still pop up although they’ve been requested to be removed, and other stories were written that may not be obvious to the requesting individual or organization," she explains. "I would caution clients on making such requests, as it may come back to enhance an issue that time has already somewhat forgiven."

Google is trying to figure out its next step on the issue and asking the European public for its advice, as well. Top company executives are planning to tour Europe to meet with the public and experts about how they should handle the ruling. It also debuted a website on Friday morning that solicits the European public’s feedback on the topic.

"We want to strike this balance right," the company said on the site. "This obligation is a new and difficult challenge for us, and we’re seeking advice on the principles Google ought to apply when making decisions on individual cases. That’s why we’re convening a council of experts."

Google’s panel includes executive chairman Eric Schmidt, top Google lawyer David Drummond, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Google is not disclosing who asks for content to be removed. That has created another potential reputational headache because it spawns rumor and speculation as to who actually asked for the link in question to be taken off the page.

In the case of the article on O’Neal and Merrill Lynch, Peston has speculated that it wasn’t the former CEO who asked for the deletion since a search of his name still calls up the article. He theorized that someone identified in the comments section may have done so.

Rather than trying to have links removed, Mitzi Emrich, chief social strategist at MWW, says clients would be better off creating fresh content to push down the unfavorable link in search results.

"If an article is factually incorrect, I typically ask the original blog or newspaper for a retraction or correction – or to ask them to write a new story, which I prefer because it will be fresher and have more prominence in search results," she says. "But if that is not an option, which a lot of times it is not, I encourage clients to create their own content and tell their own story."

Companies that have well-practiced content-creation units have an advantage in cases like this, Emrich explains.

"This is why it is so important for companies to have really robust newsrooms, blogs, and social presences. You can also rely on online influencers to write a piece," she says. "Only if there is something completely inaccurate and really popular would I recommend working through Google’s process and have that link removed."

Some European media-monitoring firms are seeing the ruling as a business opportunity. A number of EU-based news-monitoring shops told The New York Times this week that they have been contacted by clients with the hope of removing negative news stories from the Web.

But agencies and media-measurement companies contacted by PRWeek say the ruling goes against the inroads the industry has made in terms of transparent digital communications.

"It puts the public relations profession in direct conflict with society, and practitioners that are members of an organization such as the CIPR underpinned by code of conduct in direct conflict with their public interest remit," adds Ketchum Europe’s Waddington. "It would be good to see solidarity from PR firms on this issue, as has been the case recently with the Wikipedia issue."

More than two dozen agencies, ranging in size from titans such as Edelman to smaller shops such as Beutler Ink, recently promised to adhere to Wikipedia’s community rules against paid editing.

Dave Armon, president of Critical Mention, says he does not see this as an opportunity for media monitoring vendors. Yet it does spotlight the need for people to actively manage their online reputations, rather than months and years later.

"I doubt the right to be forgotten legislation in Europe will have any dramatic impact on digital communications, because paid and owned media go through a rigid approval process as does most earned coverage," he explains. "Where there will be an impact is with EU citizens who have seen coverage turn and stay negative. If they are smart, these same individuals will monitor their personal brands for additional coverage moving forward."

This story was updated on July 23 to correct the date of the incident involving Barbara Streisand and to correct Gomes' title to SVP.

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