Online forums are a dream for stock traders, angry consumers and activists, but they can create nightmares for corporations. Nearly every company, celebrity or product ’sucks,’ according to individuals who mask their true identities with user names and then proceed to bash the subject du jour.
Online forums are a dream for stock traders, angry consumers and
activists, but they can create nightmares for corporations. Nearly every
company, celebrity or product ’sucks,’ according to individuals who mask
their true identities with user names and then proceed to bash the
subject du jour.
And while online discussion forums may not have huge audiences, Terry
Hemeyer, senior counselor at Pierpont Communications in Houston, points
out that important people, such as reporters and financial analysts, are
reading the messages.
According to James Alexander, president of online information monitor
eWatch, people turn to the Net because they have a negative customer
experience; are trying to influence a stock price or other people’s
behavior; or are disgruntled employees or customers looking for revenge.
Sometimes they unknowingly pass along misinformation about a
Pros differ on the most effective method for responding to the
Amy Jackson, director of Internet communications consulting at
Middleberg + Asso-ciates in New York, says that companies should have a
crisis plan in place for the Internet. Those that do a good job with
Internet outreach are better equipped to deal with online reporters when
a crisis hits.
In cases of stock manipulation, companies can’t respond online and must
use an ap-proved-of news vehicle to disseminate their information, such
as PR Newswire or Businesswire.
And while a company’s initial reaction may be to squash hostile sites,
Alexander says that overzealous counter-attacks, such as attempting to
shut down a site, don’t yield results. He adds that companies should
stay away from registering negative versions of their domain names,
which may make reporters think they have something to hide.
Tom Gable of The Gable Group says that pros may want to enter online
discussions anonymously to try to shape them, but Jackson says companies
should always properly represent themselves.
When there is a legitimate problem, a company should not hide from
For example, Internet marketing consultant Dan Janal says that several
years ago, numerous people posted messages about mathematical errors
made by Quicken’s TurboTax program. Quicken acknowledged the mistake and
agreed to pay any tax penalties that resulted from it. The complaints
Third parties can also be useful. For example, in 1996, Washington, DC
PR firm Bivings Woodell worked with the Alliance for Environmental
Technology (AET), a re-search and development group that promotes new
production techniques for the pulp and paper industry. It endorsed the
use of chlorine dioxide as an alternative to chlorine for bleaching
paper. When environmental activists complained online, the PR firm
posted a fact sheet on chlorine dioxide to AET’s web site, sent a notice
to the listservs and gathered third-party scientists, who were able to
educate some activists and gain their support.
Another success story arose when Cone was working with a Dunkin’ Donuts
franchiser in late 1997. According to SVP of media services Mike
Lawrence, one of the company’s Muslim workers claimed she was told she
had to remove a headscarf she was wearing for religious reasons. Dunkin’
Donuts claimed it only asked her to tuck it in as a safety precaution.
The woman contacted a Washington, DC-based group called the Council on
American-Islamic Rela-tions (CAIR), which posted an action alert on its
web site and sent messages to half a dozen newsgroups, with e-mail
addresses for top Dunkin’ Donuts executives. Dunkin’ Donuts worked with
CAIR to investigate the situation and determined that it was a
misunderstanding. The woman was invited back to work with back pay and
Dunkin’ Donuts and CAIR both issued press releases, which were posted to
As for monitoring comments to begin with, companies can do so manually,
through automated clipping services, through purchased software or by
writing programs of its own.
eWatch monitors 63,000-plus electronic mailing lists and Usenet groups;
1,000-plus Web publications; hundreds of public discussion areas on AOL,
Prodigy, CompuServe and the Microsoft Network; financial message boards
such as Motley Fool, Yahoo! and Silicon Investor; and sites that
companies select as being important to them. The cost starts at dollars
16,200 for all five coverage areas per year and 10 users, or dollars
3,600 for an individual coverage area.
WebClipping.com, another Internet monitoring and clipping service,
provides results from 30 different search engines, more than 1,500
online publications and more than 63,000 Usenet groups. It costs dollars
100 a month for weekly clipping, dollars 250 a month for daily clipping
and a one-time dollars 100 setup fee. CyberAlert, which charges a fixed
fee of dollars 1,995 per month for up to five topics and 10 users,
monitors the Web, news groups, listserv discussion groups and online
Regardless of the service used, pros recommend continuing to monitor
online discussion forums manually.
And even when problems are resolved, pros should continue to monitor to
see if the issue reappears. ’The bad thing about the Net is that once
something is up there, you can’t take it down,’ says Janal. ’PR people
need to be vigilant - where there are smoldering ashes, the fire is not
out, and it could start up again at any time.’
DOS AND DON’TS
1. Rely on a combination of automated monitoring tools, such as eWatch,
as well as manual monitoring.
2. Have a crisis plan ready for dealing with damaging comments posted on
the Internet. Things can spread quickly on the Internet, and the quicker
a company reacts the less damage will be done.
3. Use the same principles of effective PR that you would with any other
1. Assume that just because it’s on the Internet, it needs to be
2. Portray someone as an anonymous third-party source if he or she is
affiliated with the company. This will only fuel the fire.
3. Be afraid to admit when the company has made a mistake. The
straightforward approach is more likely to cause the issue to die down
than denials will.