Consider two recent corporate PR challenges. One involved ony BMG Music Entertainment, the consumer electronics and entertainment conglomerate.
The other hit a weblog-publishing start-up in its first official week in business. I'm sure you've already guessed which outfit handled the situation better.
Sony BMG sold music CDs that installed hidden copy-control software on customers' PCs. After the malware was exposed by technical websites, along with the news that the software opened computers to dangerous hacking, Sony BMG released a removal utility that was potentially just as risky.
The saga grew more bizarre when experts discovered that other digital-control software on some Sony BMG CDs (and other companies' CDs) was also insecure and, to boot, acted like spyware in "phoning home" with users' listening habits. There were also reports that some of this software might violate other companies' copyrights.
Sony BMG's eventual retreat, after web-based fury moved into the mass media, included an offer to exchange the CDs for safer discs. That was helpful. But it followed unseemly sneering at customers and no serious contrition. It is this kind of behavior that leads some people, including me, to stay away from all Sony BMG products - and has led lawyers, including the attorney general of Texas, to file lawsuits against the company.
To date, sadly, I've seen no evidence that music aficionados are less likely to buy Sony BMG CDs than discs sold by less paranoid companies. I'm left with a distinct impression that Sony BMG is only sorry that it got caught and was so sloppy, not about the anti-customer control-freakery.
Meanwhile, some prominent bloggers launched a new online publishing company. They'd been calling themselves Pajamas Media, a play on the inane generalization that bloggers are just pajama-clad losers writing at home. They officially renamed the enterprise with the more gravitas-infused name of Open Source Media. Yet the operation had little to do with the ideals of the open-source technology movement. And - oops - another online media company was already using the name.
At first, the company handled the matter clumsily and not entirely forthrightly. But after some ridicule from other bloggers (and obvious legal worries), it apologized and announced with commendable good humor that it was going back to the original name.
Who dealt with it better? The pajamas people, by far.
Lessons? Companies under attack for mistakes or misbehavior always have several choices of how to respond. The spectrum ranges from brazening it out, with not a hint of contrition, to acknowledging the situation, honestly apologizing, and quickly fixing the problem.
Stonewallers had it easier when media choices were fewer. Transgressions, even if noticed by a few, didn't always become more widely known.
In the age of conversational online media, the failure to respond promptly and honorably is less of an option, thank goodness. There are too many ways for the bad news to get around - and stonewallers or outright deceivers tend to look far worse in the long run.
Does Sony get it? Someday it will have to.
Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His weblog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor.