How to Deal with Lies About Your Company (and You) on the Internet

Malicious content, on the internet, about your company and you -- how to deal with these remarks and the people who write them.

Are your enemies saying nasty things about your company? Are misconceptions and downright falsehoods being posted online without your knowledge?

If so, you could be losing a lot of business... and the goodwill you fought so hard to obtain. These problems could seriously affect your profits, stock prices and sales. PR practitioners call these pages "attack sites" - or "rogue sites" - and they can affect companies of every size.

Consider the case of a company engaged in a long, difficult strike with its union. One day, the PR manager searched for new information about the strike on a search engine. He found a site that contained several pieces of lies and misinformation, including a purported TV interview with the local anchorman and the president of the union. The transcript was totally fabricated. The interview never took place. The transcript contained misleading and false statements. However, anyone who read the page would have thought the information was true. How would they know differently? Clearly, the page had to come down.

The PR manager called the company lawyer and began to plan a strategy. They looked at the page but couldn't find any contact information. But they looked at the source code for the page (which you can do by using the browser toolbar to "view page source" in Netscape or "view document source" in Explorer). They didn't find a name or phone number of the person who posted the page, but they did find an e-mail address.

They went to Dejanews, www.dejanews.com, a search engine for newsgroup messages. They typed in the e-mail address and found many messages posted by that user. She was an avid poster in the cancer survivors group, the blues music group and the weddings group. And while she hadn't put her name on the offending union Web page, she did tell everyone her name and phone number in her newsgroup messages!

The lawyer and PR person noticed one more thing: the Web page was not posted on a union site, but on a real estate agency's site. They did a little research offline and found out that the person who posted the page worked in real estate for the company whose Web site hosted the offending pages.

Armed with this knowledge, the lawyer called the woman. The conversation went something like this:

"Hello. We know you had breast cancer. Your favorite blues artist is B.B. King and your daughter is getting married in July. We also know you posted a Web page filled with inaccuracies about the union. If you don't take the page down within one hour, we will call your boss, who probably will not be too happy to know you have put her license in jeopardy by posting libelous information on her Web site. We will call the state realty board and tell them you are spreading libelous information, which is probably a violation of your license. And we will call the anchorman and show him the interview you created. By the way, we copied the pages so if we need to go to court or to the state realty board, we can."

Within five minutes, she had taken down the page.

Sadly, this case is not alone. Many companies are falling victim to activists across the spectrum who are offended by their stance on the issues. One person is going around telling people that a sugar substitute can cause cancer, although she has no proof. Other companies, like Lexis-Nexis, Tommy Hilfiger, and Nieman Marcus have been victims of rumors that were spread via e-mail by well intentioned people who simply had heard or read lies, and then urged a boycott by all their friends and colleagues.

What can you do to protect your company?

Here are seven steps:

1. Monitor the newsgroups and search engines at least once a week. Check for company names and product names. If your company is very visible, check the names of the CEO or president as well.

2. If you find postings in newsgroups, read all the messages about the subject and determine if you need to respond. In some cases, the issue dies, or smarter minds call on the poster to verify his or her information. This happens a lot in stock newsgroups!

3. If you think you need to respond to set the record straight, dive right in! Newsgroup netiquette forbids advertising in newsgroups, but not the honest exchange of information. In fact, if you don't state your side of the story, people might assume that silence is assent!

4. Contact the original poster directly and see if you can work out the problem. Maybe there was some miscommunication that went haywire. Many people are reasonable. In fact, some of the biggest fans for companies were once people who had customer service problems that were set straight. Before you call or write, see if the person posted other messages in other newsgroups. Dejanews provides links to all messages the person posted. If you read the messages, you might begin to see how you can develop rapport with that person, or if the person is wacko! One search I conducted for a client showed that the e-mailer belonged to several hate groups! That case required a different strategy than if he had belonged to professional scientific organizations.

5. If you find a rogue Web site, talk to the Webmaster and find out what the problem is. If it was bad customer service or a faulty product, take note. She/he probably speaks for many people who have had similar problems with your company. In this case, your problem is really inside your company. If you straighten that out, the page will probably die out. If you don't, the page will live forever, like U.S. Worst, www.usworst.com, an attack page for U.S. West, a telecommunications giant. People can post their own horror stories on the site, or find out the home phone number of the chairman of the company so they can complain directly to him!

6. It is hard to threaten rogue Web site masters because they are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. However, they are subject to the same laws of libel as in the real world. So if they are spreading false information, and they know it is false, then you could bring suit against them to shut them down.

7. Be sure to copy the pages on to your computer and print them out on paper. This is your evidence. If you don't and they remove the offending material, you won't have any proof of the libel. Programs like WebWhacker and WebBuddy can copy entire sites, including the text, pictures and HTML.

These tips should help protect your company - and you - from attacks on the Internet.

Daniel Janal is president of Janal Communications, an Internet marketing agency, and the author of "Risky Business: Protect Your Company from Being Stalked, Conned or Blackmailed on the Web" which was named as one of the 30 best business books of 1998 by Soundview Executive Book Summaries. Please click here to order your copy from Amazon.com


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