PR TECHNIQUE RESPONDING TO WEB RUMORS: Survive online attacks - Cyberspace is full of unregulated, anonymous voices, some of which might be attacking your clients. Matt Arnold reports on how to handle negative online commentary

For all the fortunes made online, the Internet can often look more mine field than golden goose.

For all the fortunes made online, the Internet can often look more mine field than golden goose.

For all the fortunes made online, the Internet can often look more mine field than golden goose.

Chatrooms, bulletin boards and listserves have brought about a subtle but profound revolution in social organization, as disparate souls, often cloaked in the anonymity of a hotmail pen name, band together to discuss everything from boy bands to stocks and bonds. But lurking among the harmless surfers are investment swindlers, angry former employees and activists looking to trash a company's stock price through bogus rumors and overheated rhetoric.

Rumors and one-sided rants can crop up quietly, embedded in a few lines of text on an obscure bulletin board, only to spread like wildfire, leaving a client's reputation smoking in their wake. A phony press release can cause a company's stock to come crashing down.

'It really is the Wild West,' says David Close, an EVP at Schwartz PR. 'It's a hall of mirrors, a very unregulated thing. Everybody's anonymous, and you never know where anything is coming from.'

Close cautions clients not to respond to a troubling post, or 'flames,' unless absolutely necessary. 'Very seldom do you see a well-informed and stated accusation,' says Close. 'To me, it looks like a lot of self-cancelling noise.'

Noise or buzz, reporters are watching. Amy Jackson, managing director of competitive studies at Middleberg Euro RSCG, notes that the firm's Middleberg/Ross Media in Cyberspace studies have shown that more and more journalists are using the theatrical asides of chats and newsgroups as fodder for stories. 'Journalists are using these tools to gather information and interact with readers,' says Jackson. 'Most are willing to use Internet rumors in their reporting.'

While Web monitoring services like ewatch and CyberAlert have proliferated and grown more and more sophisticated, many companies remain at a loss on how to respond once a nettlesome string of posts is detected. Ignoring a flame can come back to haunt you, but responding too aggressively to an innocuous post can raise red flags among news media.

Bobby Schrott, manager for Burson-Marsteller's New York Knowledge Center, counsels clients to shirk reacting to newsgroup postings in favor of those on heavily traveled sites like TheVault.com or FastCompany.com. 'The whole structure of newsgroups really mitigates a lot of their destructive force,' says Schrott. 'How much credence can you lend to a forwarding of a forwarding of a forwarding?'

That perceived lack of legitimacy in such online forums was the linchpin in a key ruling late last month that could make it much harder for companies to sue chatroom posters. A federal court in Los Angeles dismissed a lawsuit against the anonymous posters who flamed Global Telemedia International on Raging Bull and other prominent financial sites. Judge David O. Carter found the postings 'full of hyperbole, invective, short-hand phrases and language not generally found in fact-based documents, such as corporate press releases or SEC filings.'

That finding, along with the undecided legal battle over when and how companies can demand the names behind online handles, means that responding to rumors could become a company's last recourse. Many in PR counsel clients to save their words for only the most egregious cases of misrepresentation on high-density sites.

If a response is necessary, its tone is as crucial as its target. Stilted, formal language stands out like an all-caps tirade in the informal, dialectical world of the newsgroup. One of Burson's clients learned this lesson the hard way.

'Someone wrote a fairly negative review of working for one of our largest clients and forwarded it to TheVault. com,' says Schrott. 'It was pretty benign - 'they work us too hard; we're under-appreciated; we're just cogs in the machine,' etc. The company handled it in a flaccid way by sending a press release saying what a great company they were to work for, how they were a market leader, that sort of thing. The flat and formulaic tone started raising red flags with reporters.'

He says the incident made the agency realize that clients need to respond as though they were in a conversation. 'It made us understand that there's a tone of voice that's effective there that's not effective anywhere else.'

Leon Berman, IR practice leader and SVP at Makovsky & Co., advises clients to stay consistent in responses to on-line attacks. 'If you see a rumor on the Web, treat it as any other rumor,' says Berman. 'If your policy is traditionally not to comment, don't comment. If it's an accurate rumor, and it seems like information has gotten out, we'd suggest a press release - the same way you would respond prior to the birth of the medium.

'Historically, when chatrooms first came about, there was some confusion on how to handle it,' Berman continues. 'One school of thought said that it was worthless information and should be ignored. But there were also execs who responded when they saw something offensive.'

Berman explains that recently one CEO wanted to refute an online rumor, even though it was true. 'He said, 'yes, it's true, but we're not ready to release it.' I reminded him of his duty to disclose that information as a publicly traded company. So, we announced it via press release, just as we would have if it wasn't on the Internet.'

Thanks to libel law, few print publications have ever had a letters page that looked anything like a chatroom or a newsgroup. The terms of debate have changed, but companies remain limited to responding to misinformation in much the same way they would in print or broadcast op/ed pages. This imbalance is corrected by the 'caveat emptor' nature of the medium, which lacks the legitimacy of the more traditional media outlets.

'You have to monitor it, but you don't have to worry that much,' says Schrott. 'It speaks well to the power of the mainstream press, because they're able to analyze the issues and source well, and those are the real threats.'



INTERNET MONITORING SERVICES

PR Newswire's Ewatch

Covers over 4,200 online media portals and more than 63,000 Usenet groups, listserves and message boards dollars 3,600 annually



CyberAlert

Covers some 3,000 sites and 60,000 Usenet groups per day and offers meta searches of three public search engines. dollars 125 start-up fee. dollars 395 monthly



Market360

Launched at the end of February by Silicon Valley start-up Biz360, this system promises real-time measurement of Net chat. It costs dollars 20,000 per month.



NetCurrents' PressClipper

Scans 2,600 sources. PR Manager, a service tailored to agencies, debuts in April. dollars 250 monthly.



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