Technology: Facing Net troubles

The media have had a field day reporting on 'negative' internet stories, so how can PROs counter this? asks Rob Gray. With the dotcom boom and bust consigned to the pages of recent history and the internet now mainstream, consumer media have shifted the way they approach coverage of websites. Technological and functionality developments no longer have novelty value given that so many people are familiar with online shopping, banking and other web activities.

As the web has become part of the fabric of modern society, media focus has shifted away from the technological story to the impact it has on lives and what it says about the world we live in today. Inevitably this has occasioned a slew of negative as well as positive stories.

On 1 September, a number of stories on a rise in the UK divorce rate pointed the finger at website Friends Reunited as a channel through which old flames were re-establishing contact. A Guardian headline, for example, read 'Divorce rate surges as friends are reunited'. England goalkeeper David James was one such example that was flagged up throughout the tabloids.

Elsewhere, eBay has been faced with a range of uncomfortable stories relating to 'inappropriate' products being up for sale on the site, spanning Christina Aguilera's used chewing gum to fake Tiffany jewellery - which so enraged the upscale jeweller that it took eBay to court in the US, accusing it of trademark infringement by facilitating and promoting the sale of counterfeit Tiffany goods.

'Any time a site becomes incredibly popular and transcends into the mainstream it's vulnerable to a new level of exposure,' explains Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser. 'A different set of rules apply. You have to work hard to educate the media that are writing about you as to what you are all about.

You have to tell them about the site's safety and privacy policies and make it clear you take them seriously.'

Friends Reunited head of PR Carolynne Bull-Edwards thinks that, for the most part, media coverage has been fair, even though some journalists appeared to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the divorce story. In responding to it, Friends Reunited sought to put its own views across and field co-founder Steve Pankhurst for interview with titles such as the Daily Express. 'We respect the press and want to work with them,' says Bull-Edwards. 'But we are an intermediary delivering on a promise to reunite people. What happens after that is beyond our control.'

Ed Pownall, press officer at gambling site BlueSQ, believes that while websites do need to be on their guard for stories that may have a damaging effect on their reputation, the occasional negative story, depending on its slant and content, is not always necessarily a bad thing. 'It's only going to help create more of a buzz around the site,' he says. 'Also such stories are likely to encourage those that haven't used Friends Reunited before - "might just check out if that girl I fancied for years is online".

I think some people viewed it as a bit nerdy and this "bad publicity" makes it cooler.'

Pownall does not believe the press are gunning for websites any more now than in the past. But he does accept that the internet has become so large that for the press to only offer positive coverage would not be objective journalism. While the internet is a great tool, it is entirely correct to expose the flipside.

Hill & Knowlton MD of consumer technology Sam Clark, whose clients include Iwantoneofthose.com and Dating Direct, is also of the view that media are not targeting websites more than any other consumer outlets, but accepts that websites are fair game and that journalists will always find an angle for a good story.

To minimise damage, she argues, any negative story needs to be given broader context: 'A PRO's job is to put it into perspective and educate as to the bigger picture. If you have one person who's had a bad experience with your website, that can be balanced against 1.5 million who've had a good one.'

Website protocol

In the case of Dating Direct, Clark and her team seek to forestall knocking copy by ensuring journalists are clear about the care and attention the site devotes to its safety policies. Although thankfully it does not happen often, users who have breached the dating service's protocols or have been deliberately misleading can be blocked from using the site.

E-tailer Firebox sells gadgets and other unusual products such as lollies encasing edible insects and tins of crocodile curry. It takes pains to ensure there isn't a PR nightmare waiting round the corner by checking that the farming and production methods involved are neither cruel nor endanger the survival of a species.

'We also try and provide as much information on the site as possible with facts, figures and customer reviews,' says Firebox PR manager Charlie Morgan. 'Being open and accountable is important and we use the site as much as possible to provide this.'

The Red Consultancy divisional managing director Andrew Baiden believes sites that inadvertently create a whole wave of juicy people stories face a double-edged sword - dealing with the issue at the same time as watching their coffers swell as everyone gets intrigued and starts clicking the URL.

'No one in the Friends Reunited business would have thought of the consequences of divorce rates when the site was built, the product just took a slightly different direction and human frailties take over,' says Baiden. 'It means that "human story" sites need to have their crisis structures very well oiled to ensure that responses are quickly and positively handled.'

Baiden tell clients that as a general rule you can make a positive from a negative story, as long as it doesn't keep coming back to hit you. If the business thinks the product has taken a route it didn't plan for, then it needs to change the product. But in most cases the story can be ridden out, safe in the knowledge that the world is drawn to the story and the site.

Red worked with Microsoft to close its MSN chatrooms across Europe last October to provide better protection for children online. As a by-product, the story was managed positively and backed publicly by the likes of Carol Vorderman and kids' charity NCH.

Websites need to maintain their credibility so that consumers will return time and again. It is essential that PROs are able to distinguish between those negative issues that are harmful to a brand and those that may actually help in generating beneficial online traffic.

HOW WOULD YOU HANDLE NEGATIVE MEDIA COVERAGE?

LUCY DARE, CORPORATE COMMS MANAGER, LASTMINUTE.COM - 'Like any successful business, there will be positives and negatives. We are an increasingly high-profile brand, especially since our IPO in 2000 when a lot of the focus was on our founders Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox, and we've taken a few knocks over the years.

'You will get negative stories such as eBay selling Christina Aguilera's chewing gum or us selling a product that wasn't up to scratch. The way to fight back from that sort of thing is to focus on the internet and how much it has changed people's lives. And here the positives always outweigh the negatives.'

ALICEN STENNER, BRAND DIRECTOR, HANDBAG.COM - 'If you look at sites such as Friends Reunited and eBay, they have insinuated themselves into people's lives, so the media can't afford to ignore them. This side of the tech industry is still young but it's important for all of us to be good at crisis management.

'We use lots of polls to understand what our consumers think about us and that's very important. It's tough for a site like Friends Reunited because it's a fact of life that relationships are breaking down. If I was them, I'd be focusing on the positive stories about relationships that have been made again and rekindled.

'It's very difficult for people to meet new people in cities, so there are good renewed-friendship stories to be accentuated.' Jennifer Evans, group head of PR, uSwitch.com 'Negative PR tends to come after an intense period of positive press.

Journalists feel they have to protect their integrity. We try to correct it if we get negative PR but you can only do so much. You've got to understand why it happens and be one step ahead.

'When you're at the peak of good coverage it's tempting to think you can relax, but that's when you really have to keep the PR momentum going.

If you court attention like Friends Reunited did with the wedding stories, there will be a downside.'

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