Foreign carmakers strike back at smear campaign

LOS ANGELES: Keeping silent about charitable donations post-September 11 led to image problems for foreign automakers, when an e-mail swept through cyberspace accusing them of failing to make financial contributions to relief efforts.

LOS ANGELES: Keeping silent about charitable donations post-September 11 led to image problems for foreign automakers, when an e-mail swept through cyberspace accusing them of failing to make financial contributions to relief efforts.

The message spread so far that companies began labeling it a "cybersmear

campaign that may have reached tens of thousands, and forced companies to create time-consuming, personalized responses.

"You have information out there that can be very powerful,

says Nissan VP of corporate communications Debra Sanchez-Faire. "It's a little disappointing, demoralizing, and discouraging."

The e-mail claimed to take its numbers from a CNN report, and listed by name companies such as Nissan, Toyota, and BMW as having given "nothing" to relief efforts. It went on to add that "It is OK for these companies to take money out of this country, but it is apparently not acceptable to return some of it in a time of crisis. I believe we should not forget things like this. Say 'Thank you' in a way that gets their attention."

The note quickly made the jump from a viral e-mail to chat-room fodder - an important step in gauging how serious the reputation threat is.

In September, it appeared in one chat room, according to web monitoring firm Intelliseek. While the frequency of its presence dipped slightly in November, January saw it appear on 101 chat sites - soon after the Detroit auto show. Intelliseek's Bill Stephenson pointed out that each of these chat rooms could represent up to 10,000 consumers. He added that this type of message often lays dormant for a time, "then takes off like a virus."

It also was read on a South Carolina radio show, in a town where BMW has a plant, and was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article.

Many companies such as Nissan and Toyota - which each gave well over $1 million to charities after September 11 - decided to be proactive in refuting the rumor.

Both companies sent out multiple e-mails to workers and dealers. Nissan asked them to cut and paste correct information, and return the e-mail to senders, while Toyota took an even more extreme step.

"I have actually done it myself on behalf of Toyota, gone onto message boards and posted my name and my contacts, with the factual information,

says Toyota's Cindy Knight, who asked every company employee to forward her the message when they received it.

Toyota and Nissan also added pop-up boxes and links to rumor-refuting websites such as snopes.com.

Knight also noticed a trend in the e-mails: Many of them had cycled through competitors' companies. So she picked up the phone and called communications executives and IT managers.

"For a while, I was spending days e-mailing and calling these companies,

she lamented. However, she added that they were helpful in reminding their employees of spamming policies.

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