Go ahead and Google Anil Potti.
No longer do the majority of top search results for the former Duke cancer researcher detail allegations that he falsified his resume and produced faulty research that has been retracted from renowned medical journals and led to the termination of three clinical trials. Instead, more than a dozen websites and social media accounts created in the months following Dr. Potti’s November resignation contain solely positive information about his research and medical experience.
“During his time at Duke, he had a special interest in taking care of patients with lung cancer and contributed to the development of several programs in cancer,” reads a section of AnilPotti.com, which does not discuss the terminated trials that a top Duke official has since said should never have been conducted.
In recent months, Potti hired Online Reputation Manager, a company that helps clients push down unfavorable content in search engine results. The effort has crowded out coverage of the scandal and retraction notices on medical journals’ websites.
Still, for Potti, the results so far appear to be mixed. Searches for his name bring up articles about his missteps published by The New York Times and The Chronicle, though many of the newly created positive sites rank high as well.
Online databases show that between Jan. 14 and Jan. 17, at least five sites were registered that combine Potti’s name in different arrangements: AnilPotti.com, AnilPotti.net, DrAnilPotti.com, PottiAnil.com and PottiAnil.net.
A number of social media accounts have also been opened under Potti’s name since he resigned from the University. A Twitter account, @anilpottimd, which was created three-and-a-half months ago, mentions Potti in the third-person and links to sites about the doctor. Accounts on other sites—including LinkedIn and Facebook—have also emerged. The Facebook profile features a photo of Potti not posted elsewhere on the Internet and now has 126 friends.
Which accounts and sites Online Reputation Manager created remains unclear. The publicly available contact information for AnilPotti.com lists an email account belonging to the firm. The social media accounts consist almost entirely of content from the recently created websites and links to them, a telltale sign that they were created by a reputation management firm, said Andy Beal, an expert in the industry.
Online Reputation Manager declined to comment on Potti’s use of its services, saying that client information is confidential.
Crossing the line?
Potti’s hiring of a reputation management firm raises ethical concerns. The content on his sites appears to be factually correct but avoids any mention of the missteps that now color the doctor’s legacy in the field.
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Dr. Jerome Kassirer, former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, said that because Potti has withdrawn four papers—“an enormous number of important retractions”—an acknowledgement of his past on the sites is in order. The retractions, one of which was of an NEJM paper, are available online but will not be as easy to find given the reputation management efforts, he noted.
“It sounds like he has... crossed the line by not giving the whole story,” Kassirer said. “It seems to me inappropriate and unprofessional.”
Sheldon Krimsky, an expert on medical conflicts of interest and a professor at Tufts University, said trying to influence search engine results is not itself unethical, but it can be if a doctor is attempting to alter the public record.
“If he says anything that has been disputed by an authoritative body, it would be unethical for him to promote himself in that way,” he said.
Online Reputation Manager is generally willing to work with clients as long as the intent is not to hide criminal activity that has not yet been reported, even if the individual’s past actions were offensive, said Ronald Smith, the company’s manager of business development, who agreed to speak about the firm’s methods generally but not about particular clients. The company takes on about 90 percent of clients who request the firm’s help, he added.
“Offline, a lawyer is hired to help them out, fight their case—I think we’re the online lawyers,” he said. “So it’s quite ethical, on our part, and I think quite right to help them out at a certain charge.”
A growing trade
Potti’s use of this service is a part of an expanding online phenomenon. The industry grew with the rise of social networks, said Beal, who co-authored “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online” and has helped businesses and individuals improve their online reputations. As Twitter and Facebook took off, individuals not only shared more information online but also regretted sharing it, he said.
“Around 2006, 2007, the coffee shop and water cooler chatter found a home on the Internet, and that’s when reputation management took off,” he said.
Online Reputation Manager typically launches four-month campaigns for specific key phrases that specialists find drive the most traffic to unfavorable content—or, as Smith called them, “offensive listings.”
“We take these key phrases and write down highly positive content that is in the form of articles and press releases and we send it to our clients in different batches,” he said. “Once our client approves of that content... we go ahead and publish it on some very authoritative and highly Google page-ranked websites on the Internet.”
Although the company offers customized contracts, clients of Online Reputation Manager are typically charged by the number of key phrases they wish to influence.
One key phrase—a name, for example—costs $500 a month for four months, Smith said. Specialists focus their efforts on the first page of search results, which is viewed by far more searchers than subsequent pages. Once the initial campaign ends, many clients pay for a maintenance plan, which costs 80 percent of the previous monthly fee.
Online Reputation Manager will also create websites for clients for $550 each, Smith said. Once the firm has created the site, the client is given full control of the site and is able to update or alter its content.
Demand for services like that of Online Reputation Manager continues to grow. Smith said the company is taking on 40 to 45 new projects a month.