Diane Danielson works hard at building her professional reputation online, and often advises other people how to do the same. So she was more than a little surprised when she was attacked personally after writing a slice-of-life column for her local newspaper.
The anonymous online poster sniped that Danielson, founder of Downtown Women's Club, was ''self-absorbed'' and the column should ''be stopped immediately.''
''It was an attack on me personally, not on anything I had done professionally,'' Danielson says. ''The newspaper offered to remove it, but I believe in free speech, so I told them to leave it up.''
Danielson's next column was on the damage anonymous posters could do to someone online. That led to another surprise for Danielson.
''More people jumped on the bandwagon,'' she says. ''I hadn't counted on that. While they didn't attack me personally, they talked about how they could write better than me, or the newspaper should quit running my stuff.''
Danielson says that fortunately, she had enough positive material online about her and her professional capabilities that it helped dilute the negative comments.
''It sucked,'' Danielson says of the negative comments. ''At first, it made me afraid to look online to see what people were saying. But then, I thought: 'These aren't people I care to be friends with anyway.' And, other people started writing in to support me.
Barbara Safani, a New York City career strategist, says attacks online are growing and people need to understand that managing their online reputation is critical for career success. Checking once a week for online information about you is important, she says.
''You've got to constantly be aware of what is being said about you online,'' she says. ''One little thing can totally screw [your career] all up.
But a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that while 47 percent of Internet users have searched for information about themselves online, only 3 percent of them report they do so regularly. The majority (74 percent) only checked once or twice a year.
Safani says she counseled one academic whose reputation was sullied by a plagiarism claim that was later proved false. However, when potential employers did an online search, they turned up those plagiarism charges - and often didn't check further to see he had been cleared.
''People didn't want to touch him,'' Safani says. ''It's really very scary how quickly you can be trashed online.''
Andy Beal, a reputation management guru, says that everyone - no matter their age or position in a company or employment status - should constantly be aware of their online reputation. He advises that a person should:
* Be proactive. Use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, StumbleUpon, a personal blog, etc., to create positive content about yourself online. Ask to guest blog on reputable sites, or have others recommend you on professional Web sites. ''These help you build an arsenal of good things about you,'' he says.
* Refrain from responding in kind. If someone trashes you, don't get in a tit-for-tat discussion. If someone makes false statements about you, immediately send them correct information or post it on your own blog or Web site. You can ask the person to remove the negative content, but they may ignore you. If an employer asks you about unflattering information about you online that is true, offer a brief explanation and then quickly move on to your positive attributes. ''I think most managers do realize we live in a transparent world, and there are negative things in our lives,'' Beal says.
* Remember that Google never forgets. Put a Google alert on your name so that you are aware when anything is posted about you online. ''This is where you're going to feel the most pain, because it's going to be easy for others to find what's being said about you, especially if it lands on the first three pages [of a Google search],'' Beal says. ''But the more positive stuff you have about yourself, and the more you keep it current, then the faster the negative stuff will fall off those top pages.''
''The key to reputation management is sincerity, transparency and consistency,'' says Beal, co-author of Radically Transparent: Managing and Monitoring Reputations Online (Sybex, $29.99). ''If you've done something wrong, then you apologize and explain what you've done to change. Then, you've got to show that it was an isolated incident - that whatever you did wrong is not something that happens anymore.''
* ANITA BRUZZESE can be reached c/o Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA 22107.