Late last year, Seattle City Light executives didn’t like what rose to the top of Google search results about the public electric utility and Chief Executive Officer Jorge Carrasco’s tenure there.
So City Light hired Brand.com, an online reputation-management company, to drown out critical stories in search results and replace them with happier items.
The “action plan” described in the contract with Brand.com called for creating positive blog items and stories about City Light’s green image, “to thereby lessen the prevalence of any negative or less-relevant stories.”
And the work would extend to Carrasco’s reputation, too. The contract, released to The Seattle Times after a public-disclosure request, said Brand.com would “target search results that come up when searching for his (Carrasco’s) name alone, but only insofar as they are directly connected to Seattle City Light’s online reputation.”
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Among the mentions generated for City Light by the deal were blog posts on websites including Huffington Post, which did not disclose they were connected to a paid marketing campaign for the utility.
City Light’s chief of staff, Sephir Hamilton, signed the contract with Brand.com in October, and extended it in February. The two contracts together authorized $47,500 for services through the end of this year. But a City Light spokesman said the city had paid only $17,500 to date and did not plan to spend more.
City Light declined requests to interview Carrasco or Hamilton.
In a statement through a spokesman, utility executives defended the Brand.com contract, saying City Light’s online reputation mattered when it came to attracting talent.
“Our executives feel strongly that this was an appropriate outlet for getting our message out,” said the spokesman, Scott Thomsen.
Thomsen said the decision to hire Brand.com was made to strengthen City Light’s reputation as it rolled out an advertising campaign boasting it is the nation’s greenest utility.
City Light’s customers have told the utility they want to know more about its green-energy portfolio and similar efforts. “This is an attempt to increase the visibility of those stories online,” he said.
Carrasco’s reputation is especially valuable to him now, as the Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to boost his pay by as much as $120,000. A council committee approved the raise earlier this month.
At $245,000 a year, Carrasco already is the city’s highest-paid employee, but Mayor Ed Murray and other supporters say a raise is needed to maintain high-quality leadership at the utility.
It’s not clear what negative stories City Light executives were trying to squash — or whether the utility got any lasting results for its money. Google search results for City Light last week were dominated by news and criticism of Carrasco’s proposed raise.
Among the negative headlines from previous years that ranked high in search results was a Seattle Weekly article from 2008 that called Carrasco’s tenure at City Light “polarizing” and described the utility as “beleaguered.”
Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said the contracts did not appear to run afoul of any city ethics policy. He said the portion that sought to improve Carrasco’s online reputation was OK because it linked it to his role at the utility.
As Internet searches have come to define much of what people know about celebrities, businesses and other organizations, a new market has emerged for reputation-boosting firms like Brand.com and Reputation.com, which boasts a variety of services to alter top Google search results.
A search of the city consulting contract database shows no other city department has hired an online reputation-management service, though some departments have contracted with outside public-relations firms in addition to their own city PR staff.
In its contract with City Light, Brand.com boasted it “clears negatives by blanketing search results with positive content” and could “suppress any negatives associated with the company or executives at the company.”
The package it offered the utility included “doctorate level content” by a “network of influential bloggers” meant to rocket up Google search pages.
Asked for examples of the positive media mentions City Light received for its money, the utility pointed to blog posts on Huffington Post and Examiner.com that hailed Carrasco and City Light as green-technology visionaries.
The Huffington Post blog item was written by Damon Banks, who describes himself as a “freelance writer and media consultant” who merges “the worlds of writing, social media, marketing and promotion.”
The piece, about “affordable green technology for your home,” called Carrasco a “green expert” with “expert insight” into energy-efficient home lighting. It made no mention of any connection with Brand.com. Banks, who also has written a puff piece about Brand.com, did not return an email seeking comment.
Michael Zammuto, president of Brand.com, said that while he did not recall the City Light article, the company pays freelance bloggers to write such pieces for clients, which often appear in the contributor section of popular websites.
Zammuto said any disclosure issues are up to the bloggers or sites involved. “Some do, some don’t. There are no rules or laws that govern that stuff,” he said.
Lena Auerbuch, a spokeswoman for the Huffington Post, said in an email the website’s rules for bloggers require disclosure of any financial stake or conflict of interest.
She said the company would look into this case, and would remove the post and revoke the blogger’s status if a violation is found.
Formerly known as Reputation Changer Inc., Zammuto’s company changed its name to Brand.com last year after acquiring the Internet domain name. Based in Philadelphia, the firm’s services typically have been marketed to small businesses and individuals.
But in an interview with the Philadelphia Business Journal last year, Zammuto said that is changing, and that government agencies are joining corporations in looking at the service.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner