Rumors, Accusations on Internet Lead to Corporate Truth Sites


For Azeezaly Jaffer, VP of public affairs and communications for the United States Postal Service, the story about USPS that ran on ABC News' "20/20" was the last straw. The piece, which aired in early 2002 and centered on the USPS' finances, was a "hatchet job" by reporter John Stossel, says Jaffer, who immediately fired off a letter to the late ABC News President Roone Arledge asking why Stossel omitted USPS rebuttals to information included in the news piece. The letter did not get a response from ABC News. "I have no problem with a critical report, but I also want balance and this was unfair," Jaffer says. The episode prompted Jaffer to develop a link on the USPS Web site titled "Setting The Record Straight." The link, which launched last summer, is a depository of Letters to the Editor that Jaffer has sent to various news outlets, ranging from The New York Times to online magazine Slate.com, refuting what Jaffer deems to be inaccurate information about the USPS. The site has been effective at communicating to the USPS' 700,000 employees, many of whom have contacted Jaffer to applaud his efforts. "If I got the employees fired up maybe the rest of the world will know that we're not going to sit back and let people take potshots at this organization," Jaffer says. The "Setting the Record Straight" link is the latest wrinkle in electronic communications. Corporations of all stripes, and their PR agencies, have started to embrace these types of links on their Web sites for several reasons. For starters, through countless chat rooms, message boards and e-mail chain letters, the Web has become a bottomless pit of rumor, innuendo and gossip. The rapid growth of the Internet is changing the dynamics of information, and not necessarily for the better. All one needs to do is Google the name of a major brand and you'll eventually turn up some dirt. There's even a Web site, http://www.hoaxkill.com, devoted to help companies and individuals identify hoaxes and to actively combat them. Another reason: unlike even 18 months ago - when the technology markets were sucking wind - you don't hear people pooh-pooh the power (and reach) of the Web. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by Burson- Marsteller found that 81% of e-fluentials - or online influencers - have used the Web in the past year to discuss, post or forward hearsay information about a company, brand or CEO to their colleagues. The survey also found that 73% of e-fluentials turn to a company's Web site before trading on a rumor. (See PR News, 7/14/03). "Internet access is dominant in the workplace so it's wise for companies to consider these types of sites as an option to control their own content," says Idil Cakim, director of knowledge development at Burson Marsteller. This past June, Burson helped its client Poland Spring to develop a Web site in response to a class action suit filed the same month accusing Poland Spring of false advertising because it labels its product "natural spring water." The site, http://www.truthaboutpolandspring.com, features several links, including a letter from Poland Spring CEO Kim Jeffery disputing the charges, a "Fact vs. Fiction" link with a point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations and a comprehensive history of how Poland Spring water is produced. "It was clear that the allegations were unfounded and outrageous and we had specific replies to the allegations," says Jane Lazgin, corporate communications director for Nestlé Waters North America, the parent company of Poland Spring. "With the proliferation of information on the Web it's incumbent upon companies to take responsibility for their customers, or whoever interacts with the company, to make sure the story is straight. There may be cases where the company makes a mistake, but it has to be the source for the truth." The Coca-Cola Co. - the most recognized brand in the world -- has also gotten into the act, launching a 'Myth/Rumor' link on its Web site last summer. The site has three sub- sections with a corporate response to myths and rumors pertaining to Coke's ingredients, products and packaging, and the Middle East. Clicking the various rumors prompts Coca- Cola's response. For instance, one rumor states that Coca-Cola contains material making it unsuitable for vegetarians and Muslims. The response says none of the carbonated soft drink brands of the company contain ingredients derived from mammals or poultry; that the company abides by laws and practices in every country where its brands are sold and that several countries where Islam is the principal religion, like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, have accepted Coca-Cola's brands. "We would damage our credibility if we came back with responses that weren't proven and validated," says John Moore, senior manager, interactive communications for Coca-Cola, adding that the Myth/Rumor link is one of the top five or six visited areas of the corporate site. Coca-Cola's PR group led the launch of the site, meeting with executives from legal, quality/ingredients, public affairs and media relations to form a consensus on the most effective way to execute the Myth/Rumor link. "The world doesn't go looking for Web pages of rumors," says Adam Turteltaub, marketing director of LRN, which provides legal, ethics and compliance counseling for a wide range of major companies, such as Ford Motor Co., Johnson & Johnson and Raytheon. "But if a rumor has a life of its own, it's good to have something up on your Web site to debunk the myth." Industry observers, however, say companies need to beware that "truth" sites have the potential to backfire. Mark Feldstein, an associate professor at the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University, says if the rumor hasn't achieved much traction with the public, the company risks spreading it further, and in refuting a rumor the company may unwittingly say something else that is damaging to its reputation. "The [links] might help a little bit but I wouldn't expect too much from them," Feldstein says. "They will help with employee morale but if companies think they're going to change harsh facts about them, then I've got some swampland in Florida I'd like to sell them." Others disagree, saying that in a media-saturated culture, companies have to be vigilant in tracking unfounded information. "Because of the instantaneous nature of media, rumors fly so fast that companies have a responsibility to stop them," says Charles Pizzo, an independent PR practioner based in New Orleans and the 2000-2001 chairperson of the board of the IABC. "As a profession we're still a bit reactive and it's time we got proactive with our reputation management." Contacts: Idil Cakim, 212.614.5101, idil_cakim@nyc.bm.com; Mark Feldstein, 202.994.4632, feldy@gwu.edu; Azeezaly Jaffer, 202.268.2145, Jaffer@usps.gov; Jane Lazgin, 203.863.0240; John Moore, 404.676.7390, jomoore@na.ko.com; Charles Pizzo, 504.282.0454, info@charlespizzo.com; Adam Turteltaub, 310.209.5388, aturteltaub@lrn.com Special Delivery The USPS created a link on its Web site last year to respond to what it considered inaccurate information in the media about the USPS. Here's a rundown on how the link was established, how it works and the USPS' efforts to build on it. It started as a simple Letter to the Editor, one of hundreds the USPS has done throughout the years. USPS decides to take a stand by adding a "Setting the Record Straight" link to its main Web site. "We were tired of taking cheap shots without comment. We were tired of being the easy laugh for writers and commentators who didn't want to make the effort to look beyond a Cliff Claven from "Cheers" or Newman from "Seinfeld" stereotype - and these ARE stereotypes," says Azeezaly Jaffer, VP/Public Affairs and Communications for the USPS. Wrote Letters to the Editor with a clear position and no interest in being subtle. Posted it to the USPS' main Web site. Regularly post responses on USPS.COM, which receives more than a million hits a day. Responses are also posted on the USPS internal intranet for more than 700,000 employees (It's one of the largest intranets in the world). Next on the horizon: A one-minute closing for USPS-TV, its internal employee TV network, on "Setting the Record Straight." Source: United States Postal Service

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