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Scandalous Sites

  |  July 23, 2002   |  Comments

Enron. Andersen. Martha Stewart. Traficant. A rogues gallery -- of Web sites?

It's every corporate communicators' nightmare. You're humming along, creating a really cool Web site for Martha Stewart, Enron, or Arthur Andersen. Then, suddenly you wake to see your company all over The Wall Street Journal, and not in that "yippee, we made the Journal!" way.

How do you redesign your site to handle a truly nasty scandal? It doesn't hurt to take a look at what public relations guru Don Middleberg suggests in his still-useful book, "Winning PR in the Wired World." Middleberg makes a case "for instantly and globally communicat[ing] up-to-date information," a lesson learned from companies, such as airlines, that must jump into action within minutes following a disaster.

Middleberg suggests a "contingency site" to provide "an oasis of information" while freeing most of your home page of highly negative material. On this site, he recommends using news releases, contact information, images and photos, video footage, legal documentation, chronologies, and links to other helpful sites.

For negative stories about to break, it's suggested organizations try to jump ahead of the game, posting a position a day or two before the muckraking begins. Such action helps make an actual published piece old news before it hits the stands.

Good ideas? Absolutely. Too bad few of the current scandal-plagued companies take the guru's advice. A review of some of the most beleaguered organizations' sites shows tactics ranging from posting dry-as-dust legal papers to completely ignoring the encircling storm. Here are some recent examples from companies in the hot seat that can't leverage the power of the Net in hard times.

Over at Enron, it's evident the Webmasters were among the first to receive pink slips. Currently, the company offers links to bankruptcy papers and some bleak information for former employees. It's all very functional, offering few insights for anyone seeking anything resembling a company position statement. One gets the sense the site has all but shut down for the time being. The only hint Enron may someday return is the statement, "Enron is in the midst of restructuring its business with the hope of emerging from bankruptcy as a strong and viable, albeit smaller, company." Sounds like we shouldn't hold our breath for any big breakthroughs or informative content anytime soon.

Arthur Andersen, the beleaguered accounting firm convicted of obstruction of justice by shredding Enron-related documents, has all but made its site "scandal central." True, the site maintains an image of two conversing professional women on its home page. From the content of the site, one can only guess these ladies are discussing the best ways to eviscerate a really juicy document. The rest of the site is dedicated to "clarifying" the position of an organization that was once an accounting titan. In most cases, the clarifications are straightforward. A few clinkers stand out. A statement issued after a guilty verdict in a criminal trial makes the petulant lead statement, "Today's version is wrong." One can only hope the PR agency behind that release has yet to be paid. If you're going to set up a site to "clarify issues," you need to speak intelligently.

The Martha Stewart Web site, the palest site I've seen in years (those pastels may do well for bedcovers but not computer screens), has no easily located mention of troubled times. A search of the word "stock" produces pictures of nifty dog and cat Christmas stockings, now available for a cool $10. Clearly, it's business as usual on the site. This may come as a relief to those who want only to challenge themselves with a fancy cabbage salad at the end of the day. Of course, the Save Martha! brigade is rallying the forces elsewhere on the Web.

Even stranger than Martha's site is the one for Ohio Rep. James Traficant. Convicted of bribery and racketeering, Traficant is likely to become the first member of Congress to be expelled since the Civil War. His boisterous site features a corny image of the former lawmaker wielding a stick and "banging away at Washington." The site is far from a paragon of content and design, even without the darkening shadow of scandal. Worse, the fact the site was last updated late last year seems to tell it all. Traficant isn't using his Web presence to aid in his communications crisis.

What's a communications professional to do? Certainly, learn some lessons from the mistakes being made. If (heaven forbid) that communications crisis lands on your side of the inbox, come up with content far better than what's currently out there. The Net can truly help communicate your position during a crisis. All it takes is a little savvy.

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Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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