Jeffrey Epstein wielded upper-crust cachet and an online PR storm to rehabilitate his image after registering as a sex offender more than a decade ago, according to a recent profile by The New York Times. But the latter tactic would be far less effective if he were to employ it today, reputation-management experts told MarketWatch.
The wealthy financier, who pleaded not guilty this month to sex-trafficking charges, reportedly “surrounded himself with prestige and counted on others to look past what he had done” after serving 13 months in a Florida county jail. Epstein, 66, had cut a controversial plea deal in 2008 after having been accused of sexually abusing underage girls.
‘Jeffrey Epstein appears to be a natural at social engineering amongst high society.’
He went on to launch a handful of websites highlighting his contributions to society — among them JeffreyEpsteinEducation.com and JeffreyEpsteinScience.com — as well as flood the internet with positive Epstein press releases and faux news stories. He also played up his benefactor connections to Harvard University, which he never attended, according to the Times.
“Jeffrey Epstein appears to be a natural at social engineering amongst high society. Thus, he was able to steadily re-ingratiate himself with the rich and famous, many of whom appear to be willing to simply look the other way about each other’s transgressions,” Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis-management consultant, told MarketWatch.
“Second, his online blitz of allegedly positive information was a classic tactic of spamming the internet for SEO benefits,” he added. “That was easier to do 10 years ago than it is now, because Google
has tightened its algorithms.”
Burying negative results
Indeed, a common strategy is to push negative stories beneath the first page of search results. Michael Frantz, the director of Jail Time Consulting and a former white-collar offender who served federal prison time, says his firm offers a reputation-restoration service that creates content, including social-media pages and positive exact-match domains (domain names that match specific keywords) for clients. A website for the service says its goal is “to bury as many of the negative articles as possible so no one sees them.”
One consultancy also offers a criminal-records removal service that promises to ’remove everything about anyone’ from 33 criminal background-check websites.
“We’re creating all this backlinking, blogs, sites and then articles over and over … we can do videos,” Frantz told MarketWatch. Cost for the basic service starts with a $1,500 down payment and he charges a monthly fee for six months, he said, typically totaling $10,200. The price tag can increase, depending on the nature of the client’s case, he said.
The consultancy also offers a criminal-records removal service that promises to “remove everything about anyone” from 33 criminal background-check websites, including Intelius, BeenVerified and LexisNexis Peoplewise. That work involves filing documentation containing the person’s personal details with each individual company to have the information removed, Frantz said, and costs a client $865.
While Bernstein recommends that disgraced public figures lie low and quietly repent at first, he says those who have sufficiently rehabbed their image may be able to venture into search-engine optimization (SEO) work. He advises such clients to first take control of every online profile they can — i.e., LinkedIn, Facebook
and others — and then “gently start publishing useful, positive information” about themselves to reintroduce their persona to the public.
“All of those would center around the creation of a website that introduces you to this individual the way he or she would like to be known,” he added, “but not in a disingenuous way.”
‘I was the easy-to-exploit, white-collar defendant’
White Collar Advice founder Justin Paperny, who served prison time for hedge-fund fraud, urges his clients to speak openly about their pasts to attract new opportunities. Case in point: Justice Department press releases about Paperny’s guilty plea and sentencing have since been muscled from his first page of search results beneath mounds of content quoting him as an expert.
“I began to create value and content around it, so if people were to see it, they could then judge me by virtue of the new record I was creating,” Paperny told MarketWatch. “[I] juxtapose who I was with who I am now: Look at bad decisions I’ve made — yes, it’s online for you to read — but also look at who I’m becoming.”
Justin Paperny, who served time for hedge-fund fraud, paid a reputation-management firm $16,000 to create ‘garbage’ websites and puffy press releases.
In fact, Paperny argues that some online reputation-repair services don’t tend to be worth the money. He says he paid a reputation-management company $16,000 before reporting to prison in 2008 to create what he called “garbage” websites and puffy press releases about him.
“I was the easy-to-exploit, white-collar defendant who would have bought anything sold to me if I thought it could help me,” he said. “I was lazy … People said they could help me; I gave them my credit card with no evidence it could work.”
Lida Citroën, a reputation-management and personal branding expert, said many clients who have approached her for reputation-management services had either tried algorithm-gaming services with little success or found their cost prohibitive. “I have had clients tell me they’ve been quoted in the hundreds of thousands,” she said.
How black-hat SEO operators ‘cheat the system’
Some companies even engage in unethical “black-hat” SEO techniques that violate search-engine rules, including using invisible keywords, “keyword stuffing,” employing sneaky redirects meant to deceive search engines, and link schemes that manipulate links to or from a website. (Google, which did not respond to a MarketWatch request for comment on how it roots out such abuse, warns users to steer clear of those tactics.)
Some companies use ‘keyword stuffing,’ employing sneaky redirects meant to deceive search engines, and ‘link schemes’ that manipulate links to or from a website.
Another black-hat tactic is to create positive fictitious personas with the same name as the person trying to bury their negative results, said Andy Beal, an author and reputation-management consultant who says he does not condone such tactics, to fool Google into elevating that content instead.
Some black-hat companies will also send criminal background-check sites bogus, “heavy-handed, legal-type notices” or even payment in an effort to get their client’s information removed, including made-up court orders, Beal said. “These companies will fall for it and take them down because they don’t have the resources to fight it,” he said.
“Eventually, black-hat anything gets called out and you end up with a worse problem than you were trying to fix,” said Beal. “Usually someone uses a black-hat firm because they have not changed who they are — they just want what was discovered to go away.”
Black-hat SEO manipulators “stay on top of all of the ways to cheat the system,” Bernstein said, noting that search engines have cracked down on such tactics in recent years. But those that develop a reputation for success, he said, “can, de facto, charge whatever they want.”
Why Epstein might be ‘mocked’ if he tried the same PR stunt now
Experts argue that those seeking a reputation facelift should take a more holistic approach beyond Google search optimization. Besides, whatever tactics Epstein tried a decade ago are unlikely to work today, they said.
‘The search results that will come up when you search for Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein are going to be in legitimate news articles from legitimate news sources.’
“The search results that will come up when you search for Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein are going to be in legitimate news articles from legitimate news sources that are going to be far more authoritative in the eyes of Google than anything that their PR people might try to pump out to distract the search algorithm,” said Jon Goldberg, founder of the strategic communications firm Reputation Architects.
The internet’s ability to amplify news “is exponentially greater now than it was 10 years ago,” Bernstein added. “He’d be mocked by the general public if he went out there [now] with a bunch of positive news about himself online.”
Rather, Bernstein’s “standard procedure” for such a public figure would start with dropping off the radar entirely for an extended period of time, doing good (for example, donating to charity) behind the scenes, and making sure the person doesn’t do anything that resembles their past transgressions.
The person needs to understand whom his actions have harmed and how; take responsibility for what happened and make amends; and demonstrate a consistent, tangible change in behavior, Goldberg said.
A reputation-repair program for a prominent person convicted of criminal wrongdoing can easily run a bill of more than $100,000, Bernstein said. Goldberg estimated that a high-profile individual from the world of entertainment or finance might pay “tens of thousands of dollars a month, at a minimum, for an extended period of time.”
But there’s still room for redemption among the many folks without hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on a massive publicity campaign or reputation-management consultant, Goldberg said.
“That’s not to say that an individual can’t go forward having done their time, having taken responsibility for their actions, and demonstrate to their community … that they have changed and that they’re prepared to go forward with their life in a positive and constructive way,” he said. “That’s something any individual can do.”