Public relations firms are surfing the Net -- to find out if
someone, somewhere out in cyberspace is trashing a client and to provide a corrective
spin if required.
At Middleberg and Associates, a mid-sized Manhattan firm that is one of the handful of public relations companies in the country that specialise in Internet monitoring, every one of the 25 employees, including the receptionist, has Internet access and is encouraged to venture into cyberspace.
The company's president, Don Middleberg, says the online world is the greatest boon to public relations he has seen in the 20 years he has been in the business. But he is quick to add that, given the Internet's wide reach, it also poses an unprecedented threat to clients.
"The dark side of the Net is that anyone can say anything to anybody at anytime and there's absolutely no regulation, no one needs to verify anything," he said. "It could be true, it could be false. And as a result, people are doing some things that are very damaging to companies' reputations and they are also doing some things to companies that are actually impacting sales."
Middleberg and other public relations executives say clients are growing increasingly alarmed about so-called rogue Web sites, sites put up on the World Wide Web by angry individuals who target particular corporations.
KMART, MCDONALD'S TRASHED IN CYBERSPACE
Among the companies who have been bashed are KMart, McDonald's, NYNEX and the First Boston Corporation, which suffered the indignity of having salaries posted.
Firms are concerned about the rogue web site phenomenon because, in addition to the company's official home page, an Internet search will yield anti-corporate sites as well.
Unity Stoakes, an associate at the Middleberg firm, demonstrated the phenomenon by doing a search for Ford. It yielded a site put up by critics of the Ford Motor Company who call themselves the Association of Flaming Ford Owners.
The group's home page features a photograph of a burned-out Ford pickup track superimposed on a fiery background and a sensational warning: "What caused this truck to burst into flames could happen to 26 million other Ford vehicles in the U.S. and Canada!"
"It's a Web site that was probably produced in about 30 minutes," Stoakes said. "Very easy to do. Somebody could do it without spending much money."
In addition to the World Wide Web, p.r. firms monitor live chats and newsgroups. But relatively little effort is focused on the former because most chat rooms are limited to small groups of people and from a public relations perspective there is little potential for exposure there.
But thousands of people log on to read and post messages for a variety of special interest newsgroups. So search software used by p.r. firms involved in Internet monitoring concentrates on the 16,000 or so newsgroups.
"We find that the newsgroups are much more interactive than the Web," said Adam Cooper, creative manager at the Interactive Solutions Group of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. "So the newsgroups are really what we would consider the key place to listen to people."
When a search yields something that warrants a response, public relations professionals may post a rebuttal in the newsgroup or send an e-mail reply directly to the person responsible for the objectionable posting. In either case, the professionals are taking pains to craft their response in "Netiquette," the style of cyberspace correspondence.
eWorks!, a service that monitors the Internet for more than 200 clients including Mrs. Fields Cookies and Northwest Airlines, charges $195 a message for posts to newsgroups. James Alexander, a managing partner based at the company's White Plains, New York, office, says it is a mistake for p.r.-conscious corporations to make initial contact with their cyber-critics over the telephone.
"We're seeing more and more often where companies are contacting people who are posting in the newsgroups outside of this medium. In other words, they'll see a post and they'll track down the person and they'll call them," Alexander said.
KEEP IT IN THE NEWSGROUP PLEASE
"Companies really need to understand that people don't make that leap with them, that they need to keep it in the newsgroup," he said. "So, if something appears in a newsgroup, just send an e-mail to the person saying 'I'd really like to talk to you about this. Can I call you? What's your phone number?'"
Public relations veterans agree that about the worst thing a company can do is ignore people who badmouth them in cyberspace.
Alexander cites the case of Mrs. Fields Cookies, which reportedly tracked a drop in sales after false rumours circulated on the Internet about the company donating cookies to a party for jurors after the O.J. Simpson murder trial. And it was Intel's lack of response to a newsgroup gripe about its faulty Pentium chip that led to a $475 million loss after the Wall Street Journal picked up the story.
"The explosion of information going on out there is just beyond any one organisation's ability to control," Middleberg said. "So you do the best job you can with the resources you have."