Weekly Web Watch: Fan web site runs ovals around auto giant Ford’s PR party line

Your most dedicated followers can sometimes cause you more headaches than your competitors. At least, this is what Ford must be feeling following its failure to get a court to try to stop a web site from publishing internal company documents and secret product plans (PRWeek, Sept. 7 and 20). Blue Oval News (www.blueovalnews.com) is all about Ford - the company, its history, its products and employees.

Your most dedicated followers can sometimes cause you more headaches than your competitors. At least, this is what Ford must be feeling following its failure to get a court to try to stop a web site from publishing internal company documents and secret product plans (PRWeek, Sept. 7 and 20). Blue Oval News (www.blueovalnews.com) is all about Ford - the company, its history, its products and employees.

Your most dedicated followers can sometimes cause you more

headaches than your competitors. At least, this is what Ford must be

feeling following its failure to get a court to try to stop a web site

from publishing internal company documents and secret product plans

(PRWeek, Sept. 7 and 20). Blue Oval News (www.blueovalnews.com) is all

about Ford - the company, its history, its products and employees.



In many ways it belongs to a genre that has flourished on the Internet -

the fan publication. But it is not just a fan site.



’Most web sites are pro-Ford. This site is pro-Ford’s customers,’ it

says, referring to the many Ford fan sites on the Net. ’We’re not here

to automatically place a halo upon Ford’s blue oval. We’re here to

question, to ask why, to inform, to educate, to say no way, to applaud,

to check - to create a balance.’ In a sentence, it states one of the

classic functions of the press. It continues: ’Why do Ford Motor Company

employees continue to support BlueOvalNews? Many Ford employees have

given their working years to Ford ... but only to be replaced by

outsiders and to be sold out under a cruel Ford management system.’



And that’s where the problem lies. On the one hand, the people who spend

hours every week maintaining sites like Blue Oval News are your best,

most loyal customers, and what they publish attracts the attention of

other loyal, dedicated customers and fans. But they seldom toe the party

line and sure can mess up your communications.



When someone is writing about something because they love it, they will

make different editorial judgements from someone whose agenda is to sell

newspapers or get viewers. And this can sometimes be difficult for PR

professionals to come to terms with.



Witness Ford’s own treatment of another ’fan’ site, the Thunderbird

Rumor Mill (www.as.net/ jeffers/tbird.html), whose creator tried to gain

access to Ford’s media relations site (media.ford.com). Ford’s reply

said, in part: ’We are sorry, but we are unable to grant you access to

media. ford.com, which is reserved to members of the print and broadcast

media.’



Ford’s PR managers must have little sense of irony if they can allow an

official communication to say their web site is only for ’print and

broadcast media.’ The once-clear line that divided the public from the

media has blurred, and will blur even more. Lane’s site has been used as

a source for stories by the conventional media. Ford owners and

prospective customers go to the site for information their dealer isn’t

likely to tell them, like when a particular model is due to be

discontinued or superceded. And when it comes to its reputation for

getting the inside track, the court case has done Blue Oval News nothing

but good. Blue Oval News and its kin are, like it or not, now part of

the news media.



In a sense, ’enthusiast’ web sites like this do what mainstream media

ought to be doing - asking the questions that you don’t want to answer,

saying the things you don’t want said. That’s because they are the most

interested, informed audience.



Many companies are already confronted with their own equivalents of Blue

Oval News. But you can’t make a rule that the only people who are

allowed to write about your company are the ones who have no particular

affection for them. There is a very delicate line, between protecting

trade secrets while nurturing enthusiasm for your products on the one

hand, and appearing to be a company that will not let its most loyal,

enthusiastic customers speak.



- Stovin Hayter is editor of Revolution. All e-mails should be sent to

stovin@revolution.haynet.com.



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