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Are Your Ears Burning? Your Critics Are Talking...

  |  July 6, 2001   |  Comments

Do your consumers trust your company? Do they think your company is worth supporting? Do they consider your company a good corporate citizen? Someone may be undermining you even as you ponder those questions.

It's bad enough trying to create a positive image on the Internet. With millions of competing Web sites and the overall marketing "noise" reaching a cacophony, it's a small miracle that we can get anyone's attention.

But you may be getting some attention that you haven't counted on -- and you may not even know it. Public relations professionals may be surprised to know that activists' groups are growing ever more sophisticated online. Maybe your company, per se, is not the target of an active (and well-traveled) Web site, but your industry might be. And guilt by association can be just as damaging to your business as any other kind of negative public attitude.

Notice we didn't say "negative publicity." That's because this goes way beyond publicity and hits right at the core of your business: Do your consumers trust your company? Do they think your company is worth supporting? Do they consider your company a good corporate citizen?

Many of these Web sites are more sophisticated, better organized, and more articulate than many corporate PR Web sites we've seen. One example is The Truth, an antitobacco Web site funded by The American Legacy Foundation (which gets its funding from the 1998 tobacco industry settlement with 46 states). This site is sharp, well designed, interesting, and engaging. Right away you can find out who the group is, what its mission is, where it gets its funding, and what its history is. Does your site have that in its online newsroom?

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is carrying an aggressive online and offline campaign against fast-food chains such as Burger King (which it calls "Murder King") and Wendy's. The campaign against Burger King reached a cease-fire after the fast-food chain announced its new animal welfare standards.

Fenton Communications made the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) nervous enough to issue a three-page counter-press release prior to its conference in late June. The press release warned journalists about what it felt were questionable scientific facts being propagated by Fenton Communications (allegedly the group behind the Alar scare in 1989).

But which site does a better job at media relations? Journalists are in a hurry to find the information they want. They want what they want in a couple clicks. A visit to the Fenton Web site gives you a clean design with the content categorized in a neat and relatively easy-to-follow format. Using the "David and Lucile Packard Foundation" as a funding source for a report on advocacy campaigns adds to the legitimacy of this company.

On the other hand, a reporter visiting the ACSH Web site is met with an old, yet familiar, problem (often caused by internal bickering and politics): Nearly all the site's content is crammed onto the home page. And, for now, we'll just ignore the press release regarding Jenna and Barbara Bush's latest scuffle with under-age drinking laws (Hint: It's the law's fault, not theirs.).

So if you're serious about online PR and serving the needs of journalists, you have to do at least as good a job as your critics.

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Greg Sherwin and Emily Avila

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