PR TECHNIQUE: INTERNET - Eavesdropping in the chat room. Chat rooms are becoming a PR battleground. Rebecca Flass reports on the best ways to combat negative online publicity and uncovers the success stories

Online forums are a dream for stock traders, angry consumers and activists, but they can create nightmares for corporations. Nearly every company, celebrity or product ’sucks,’ according to individuals who mask their true identities with user names and then proceed to bash the subject du jour.

Online forums are a dream for stock traders, angry consumers and activists, but they can create nightmares for corporations. Nearly every company, celebrity or product ’sucks,’ according to individuals who mask their true identities with user names and then proceed to bash the subject du jour.

Online forums are a dream for stock traders, angry consumers and

activists, but they can create nightmares for corporations. Nearly every

company, celebrity or product ’sucks,’ according to individuals who mask

their true identities with user names and then proceed to bash the

subject du jour.



And while online discussion forums may not have huge audiences, Terry

Hemeyer, senior counselor at Pierpont Communications in Houston, points

out that important people, such as reporters and financial analysts, are

reading the messages.



According to James Alexander, president of online information monitor

eWatch, people turn to the Net because they have a negative customer

experience; are trying to influence a stock price or other people’s

behavior; or are disgruntled employees or customers looking for revenge.

Sometimes they unknowingly pass along misinformation about a

company.



Pros differ on the most effective method for responding to the

attacks.



Amy Jackson, director of Internet communications consulting at

Middleberg + Asso-ciates in New York, says that companies should have a

crisis plan in place for the Internet. Those that do a good job with

Internet outreach are better equipped to deal with online reporters when

a crisis hits.



In cases of stock manipulation, companies can’t respond online and must

use an ap-proved-of news vehicle to disseminate their information, such

as PR Newswire or Businesswire.



And while a company’s initial reaction may be to squash hostile sites,

Alexander says that overzealous counter-attacks, such as attempting to

shut down a site, don’t yield results. He adds that companies should

stay away from registering negative versions of their domain names,

which may make reporters think they have something to hide.



Tom Gable of The Gable Group says that pros may want to enter online

discussions anonymously to try to shape them, but Jackson says companies

should always properly represent themselves.



When there is a legitimate problem, a company should not hide from

it.



For example, Internet marketing consultant Dan Janal says that several

years ago, numerous people posted messages about mathematical errors

made by Quicken’s TurboTax program. Quicken acknowledged the mistake and

agreed to pay any tax penalties that resulted from it. The complaints

stopped.



Third parties can also be useful. For example, in 1996, Washington, DC

PR firm Bivings Woodell worked with the Alliance for Environmental

Technology (AET), a re-search and development group that promotes new

production techniques for the pulp and paper industry. It endorsed the

use of chlorine dioxide as an alternative to chlorine for bleaching

paper. When environmental activists complained online, the PR firm

posted a fact sheet on chlorine dioxide to AET’s web site, sent a notice

to the listservs and gathered third-party scientists, who were able to

educate some activists and gain their support.



Another success story arose when Cone was working with a Dunkin’ Donuts

franchiser in late 1997. According to SVP of media services Mike

Lawrence, one of the company’s Muslim workers claimed she was told she

had to remove a headscarf she was wearing for religious reasons. Dunkin’

Donuts claimed it only asked her to tuck it in as a safety precaution.

The woman contacted a Washington, DC-based group called the Council on

American-Islamic Rela-tions (CAIR), which posted an action alert on its

web site and sent messages to half a dozen newsgroups, with e-mail

addresses for top Dunkin’ Donuts executives. Dunkin’ Donuts worked with

CAIR to investigate the situation and determined that it was a

misunderstanding. The woman was invited back to work with back pay and

Dunkin’ Donuts and CAIR both issued press releases, which were posted to

newsgroup sites.



As for monitoring comments to begin with, companies can do so manually,

through automated clipping services, through purchased software or by

writing programs of its own.



eWatch monitors 63,000-plus electronic mailing lists and Usenet groups;

1,000-plus Web publications; hundreds of public discussion areas on AOL,

Prodigy, CompuServe and the Microsoft Network; financial message boards

such as Motley Fool, Yahoo! and Silicon Investor; and sites that

companies select as being important to them. The cost starts at dollars

16,200 for all five coverage areas per year and 10 users, or dollars

3,600 for an individual coverage area.



WebClipping.com, another Internet monitoring and clipping service,

provides results from 30 different search engines, more than 1,500

online publications and more than 63,000 Usenet groups. It costs dollars

100 a month for weekly clipping, dollars 250 a month for daily clipping

and a one-time dollars 100 setup fee. CyberAlert, which charges a fixed

fee of dollars 1,995 per month for up to five topics and 10 users,

monitors the Web, news groups, listserv discussion groups and online

forums.



Regardless of the service used, pros recommend continuing to monitor

online discussion forums manually.



And even when problems are resolved, pros should continue to monitor to

see if the issue reappears. ’The bad thing about the Net is that once

something is up there, you can’t take it down,’ says Janal. ’PR people

need to be vigilant - where there are smoldering ashes, the fire is not

out, and it could start up again at any time.’





DOS AND DON’TS



DO



1. Rely on a combination of automated monitoring tools, such as eWatch,

as well as manual monitoring.



2. Have a crisis plan ready for dealing with damaging comments posted on

the Internet. Things can spread quickly on the Internet, and the quicker

a company reacts the less damage will be done.



3. Use the same principles of effective PR that you would with any other

medium.





DON’T



1. Assume that just because it’s on the Internet, it needs to be

responded to.



2. Portray someone as an anonymous third-party source if he or she is

affiliated with the company. This will only fuel the fire.



3. Be afraid to admit when the company has made a mistake. The

straightforward approach is more likely to cause the issue to die down

than denials will.



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