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Toxic general hires help to hide career blemishes

Jan. 29, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
These images are from a YouTube video praising Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly's service. The retired general recently launched an online campaign to manage his reputation, mired by a Pentagon investigation that found he demeaned staff.
These images are from a YouTube video praising Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly's service. The retired general recently launched an online campaign to manage his reputation, mired by a Pentagon investigation that found he demeaned staff. (YouTube)
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Retired Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly has got a tarnished reputation as a toxic leader and bad boss, but maybe not for long.

Google search results for the former chief of the Missile Defense Agency still connect to allegations of bullying and berating subordinates. But interspersed with these stories are rosy depictions of O’Reilly as a positive mentor and role model for soldiers.

These positive characterizations appear in numerous blog posts, press releases, YouTube videos and more than a dozen social media profiles. Collectively they create an AstroTurf online presence, carpeting over O’Reilly’s blemishes.

How did all of this favorable information wind up online? That’s not entirely clear, but it appears the retired general hired OptimizeUp, a company that advertises its ability to game Google’s algorithm, boosting positive information and burying the negative. Online reputation management is legal, sanctioned by Google and it’s a big business.

“It does look like a classic case of reputation management,” said Andy Beal, author of Repped: 30 Days to a Better Online Reputation. “A quick perusal for the search results for his name indicate there has been a deliberate attempt to take control of what shows up in Google. You have multiple social media accounts, all talking about him in the third person, all talking about him in a positive light. If there is something negative trying to be suppressed, this is how you would do that.”

O’Reilly declined to comment when Army Times contacted him by phone, and OptimizeUp did not return several calls. Army Times linked O’Reilly with the company through a contact listed on a press release titled “LT Gen Patrick O’Reilly Contributed to European Missile Defenses Strategy.”

The company’s website offers “reputation management” among other search engine optimization services, advising not to try to remove or censor negative publicity.

“Instead, it is recommended that you try to ‘drown-out’ the negative comments by proactively publishing useful, positive information about yourself or your business,” OptimizeUp says on its site. “If this positive information can outperform the negative in Google’s search results, it should reduce the effects of the bad publicity.”

The strategy appears to be working for O’Reilly. OptimizeUp’s press release is the second search result for him on Google, two above the first news report about a Defense Department inspector general’s investigation, which found that O’Reilly demeaned and belittled employees, and behaved in such a way that six senior staffers departed from his agency. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta allowed O’Reilly to retire and keep his rank, but issued him a reprimand.

The investigation found O’Reillys leadership style to be “inconsistent with standards of senior Army leaders,” while one subordinate quoted in it described his style as “management by blowtorch and pliers,” and O’Reilly himself as, “condescending, sarcastic, abusive.”

On Yahoo!, the first page of search results contains only one reference to the scandal, an outcome — if it were Google — that would be considered the “holy grail,” of online reputation management, Beal said.

The June 28 press release reads in part: “As a result of the hard work and leadership contributions of Patrick O’Reilly, the United States deployed a command and control battle management system in Germany and a forward-based radar in Turkey that was linked to an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Ship on patrol in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.”

The torrent of positive material like this includes five videos on YouTube under the title, “LT Gen Patrick O’Reilly — A Successful Leader.” The videosappear on an account with his name. They include photo montages set to upbeat music and overlaid with positive descriptions of O’Reilly: “role model,” “leader,” and “positive motivator.”

In June, blog posts attributed to O’Reilly but written in the third person, began to appear on tumblr.com, blogspot.com and wallinside.com. They stopped coming a few months later. They omit any mention of the allegations against him, but highlight his career accomplishments and indicate he intends to become a part-time consultant to industry and universities working with the U.S. government.

There are also accounts on Google+, slideshare.net and storify.com, as well as lesser known sites like allvoices.com, quora.com, behance.net, issuu.com, webs.com, magcloud.com, about.me, prezi.com, cvshare.net, profiled.com, magnt.com and Zerply.com — all with hypertext links to one another.

According to Beal, reputation managers often target two of the many factors Google’s algorithm considers to judge relevance: keywords and the number of links back to the page, a probable explanation for O’Reilly’s many interlinked blogs and profiles.

But the apparent emphasis on quantity over quality seems to have yielded some inadvertently humorous results. O’Reilly’s language proficiency on the career site profiled.com is listed as “English, Fluent,” and one of his blog posts offers several tips under the heading “Traveling with General Patrick O’Reilly.”

“If you are traveling for business, it is likely that your lodging has already been taken care of,” reads the tip. “If you are the one in charge of finding your hotel, find it ahead of time. General Patrick O’Reilly says you can save time and money by booking ahead of time.”

While Beal had no first-hand knowledge of O’Reilly’s dealings with OptimizeUp, he estimated, based on search results, that O’Reilly had launched an extensive campaign of several months that cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The campaign appeared to have involved registering and posting profiles, and ghostwriting entries.

Not just for retired generals, online reputation management has grown from a cottage industry to a booming business driven by the ease at which disgruntled customers or jilted lovers can voice their displeasure online, a desire for companies and professionals to do some digital age damage control.

For average Joes, options range from $500 services and Beal’s book offers free, do-it-yourself advice.

“Sometimes the internet never forgets, and it’s not fair that it never forgets,” Beal said.

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