United incident reinforces the need for Web strategy

When an old Chicago Tribune report on United Airlines' 2002 bankruptcy filing accidently resurfaced on the Internet this Monday, the airline's stock plunged to a low of $3 per share before the airline refuted the rumor with a two-paragraph statement. Its stock mostly rebounded on news of the United statement, but the incident demonstrated just how tenuous a company's reputation can be in the Internet age.

When an old Chicago Tribune report on United Airlines' 2002 bankruptcy filing accidently resurfaced on the Internet this Monday, the airline's stock plunged to a low of $3 per share before the airline refuted the rumor with a two-paragraph statement. Its stock mostly rebounded on news of the United statement, but the incident demonstrated just how tenuous a company's reputation can be in the Internet age.

Anyone who has ever worked on the back end of a Web page knows how easily and quickly errors can occur. In an age when one mouse click can send out false information, which is then aggregated by news services, e-mailed, copied into blogs, and spat out by RSS feeds, companies need to move beyond simple statements issued via a press center.

PR pros should advocate for and build strong, central resources for a company's public information. Although United reacted quickly, it didn't appear to go beyond the standard, issue-a-press-release routine. Given the volatile nature of the airline industry, it's no surprise that traders acted the way they did in the face of the erroneous report.

While an online press center is a requirement for any organization, there is also clearly a growing need for Web platforms to refute ongoing rumors. General Motors is one company that appears to see the value of taking an active stance to be sure it remains the leading voice of its brand. Perhaps taking a page from the Obama campaign's Fight the Smears Web site, GM recently launched GM Facts and Fiction, to counter what it sees as “myths” about the company.

Given the difficulties the airline industry has faced during the past few months, it is incomprehensible that a company such as United does not have a corporate blog – or at the very, least a more visible Web strategy.

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