PR TECHNIQUE: When should you respond to online attacks?

When your company or client is attacked online, responding can often be the worst thing to do. It is far better to monitor potential damage.

When your company or client is attacked online, responding can often be the worst thing to do. It is far better to monitor potential damage.

When Scott Testa learned that someone had posted false, negative information about his company on an online message board, he didn't do anything about it. But Testa, COO of intranet software company Mindbridge, says that from a PR standpoint, it was the right thing to do. "There were some cases where people were saying things that were absolutely untrue," he says, "but within a month, people unrelated to our organization had reacted to the negative postings and put positive things out. When you react [yourself], it can make things worse." Testa's experience is one that has become all too familiar to the boardroom. Since the evolution of the internet, anyone with a screen name and an opinion can vent in an internet chat room or on a message board viewed by thousands of web surfers, giving near ulcers to those charged with maintaining corporate reputation. In an online forum where files and messages are transferred almost instantly, negative information and rumors can travel just as quickly, and websites where disgruntled employees and customers exercise their First Amendment rights to the fullest are easily accessible (the most famous ones are the company's name followed by ""). Such issues have led to a new responsibility among PR professionals: monitoring and dealing with online-reputation saboteurs. Most of the time, the activities of online saboteurs do not require formal action - just close monitoring. Tony Wright, an account supervisor for Weber Shandwick, works in the web-relations department in the Dallas office with a service that the firm calls NETelligence, a mix of manual and electronic monitoring of the internet. Many clipping services and agencies also offer such services. In the case of NETelligence, the electronic component keeps track of the majority of web content, while Weber Shandwick manually watches certain forums and sites that are not monitored well electronically. "Some of our healthcare clients need manual board monitoring, so we go out and find the places and monitor them manually," he says. "Most clients want weekly or monthly reports. In 90% of cases, monitoring simply means being aware of the information that's out there, and riding it out to be sure that nothing truly damaging occurs." This policing of the internet not only keeps executives in tune with public opinion, but can also be an indicator of places where a traditional campaign may have gone wrong. When Wright worked with client American Airlines, he said that negative customer posts on (now part of caused the agency to recommend that the airline address the issues in a customer mailing. In another instance, when websites drew attention to Nike's use of questionable labor practices in Vietnam in 1996, the company started a proactive PR strategy that included a page on its website called "Transparency 101." Nick Wreden, author of Fusion Branding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future, says that these strategies can even reinforce the company's image. "In the long run, it's better for companies to work with critics, like Nike did, to address the issues," he explains. But working with the critics should only be an option if it is done in an official way. It is acceptable, Testa and Wright agree, to send a letter to the website operator or message-board administrator to notify them of trademark and slander laws, and make them aware of the fact that they are being monitored. However, PR people should never post a response by posing as a consumer. "Planting information is out of bounds," says Wreden. "If the PRSA or other organization wants to enforce a code of ethics, this should be grounds for expulsion from the profession." That said, Wright adds that a well-intended post could backfire. "If you get caught," he says, "it looks twice as bad." As for protest sites tracking a company's every move, they must be dismissed as opinion unless they say something incredibly damaging. "If someone says that your company stinks, it's just an opinion," Wright says. "Because one person said it, that doesn't make it a rumor." One of the hardest parts of presenting a client with a report may be the client's desire for instant rectification. Wright says, "The biggest things we have problems with are CEOs coming in mad and wanting to respond [to negative postings]. A lot of clients get disappointed because they want to flame somebody. But [saboteurs] have nothing to lose, and you do. You have a more powerful arsenal." Obviously, the best way to avoid the wrath of harmful keyboard warriors and disgruntled employees is to practice good PR, human resources, and customer service from the start. "Having good HR practices ahead of time will help. If someone really has something stuck in their craw, all you can do is see what they're upset about, and try to make sure that others aren't upset about the same things in the future," says Wright. In the end, it is only appropriate to acknowledge and respond to saboteurs if they break the law or pose an imminent or dangerous threat. "The only times I would ever respond is if the thread of the message is getting out of control," says Wright. "If all of a sudden there are 50 posts, and everyone is saying something that isn't true, then you can respond." In the 1990s, many companies replied to online attacks with lawsuits, but unless the things said are slanderous or infringe copyrights or logos, they require a lighter touch. Wreden points out that McSpotlight, a site criticizing McDonald's in the UK, saw higher traffic after the company sued its operators. Wright claims that of the roughly 50 accounts that he's worked on, there have been only two instances where online criticism required a direct response. "And if you have to get your legal department involved, then you haven't done it right," he says. "Legal is the very last resort." ----- Technique tips Do use a web-monitoring status report as part of an ongoing dialogue with your client about its reputation Do find customer service or internal relations answers for issues raised by web monitoring Do monitor forums and sites that customers visit diligently Don't respond to every negative comment posted about your company Don't be impatient; negative postings tend to go away with time. Dangerous rumors will spread quickly Don't post while posing as a customer

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