Robert C. Pini
As the Internet comes increasingly alive with electronic discussion groups, conversations that involve company bashing are becoming more frequent. Does this pose a public relations hazard to business? The answer from photonics companies seems to be, "sometimes."
At one end of the range of discussion group chat, members may talk with satisfaction about companies and even recommend products. At the other end, hate groups spring up when people share frustration and anger over a company, whether it results from a bad experience, narrow ideology or complete fancy.
Typically, discussion groups exchange productive information along the lines of problem-solving and references to information. Yet discussion can become a company concern if participants are driven by anger to misinform others.
As discussion groups proliferate -- there are an estimated 50,000 now, such as Usenet news groups sci.optics and alt.lasers -- companies are beginning to wake up to the need to monitor the conversation to see what is being said about them. Fortunately, that is easily done with a standard Internet search engine; word of mouth will lead to others.
Once you find the groups, how do you respond? That depends, experts say, on whether it's a technical or financial group. "We don't comment on the rumors and innuendo," Peter Schuman, manager of investor relations at Coherent Laser Group in Santa Clara, Calif., says of the financial message boards. "There are a lot of misstatements on the Net, but people can check our SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings if they want good information. We go in to monitor the sentiment and what is being said, but our policy is not to react. If you react to one rumor, then you have to react to all of them and that's just not possible."
A number of cases have been reported where chat has caused a vicious cycle of damaging price fluctuations in company stock followed by a boisterous increase in misinformation in the discussion group. Schuman advises that companies work through the usual channels to stem the misinformation when faced with this situation. Investor relations specialists also recommend educating employees to keep company information to themselves.
For discussion groups that deal with nonfinancial information, companies are not pressured to stay out of the discussion. The question becomes how to join it productively.
One photonics company with a large Web presence, Matrox Electronic Systems Ltd., an imaging board manufacturer, recently hired a full-time employee to respond to information queries from discussion groups and to monitor the online sites dedicated to its business: hardware and gaming reviews.
The Dorval, Quebec-based company is admittedly atypical in its Web presence. It is also a proactive model for staying out in front of the curve. According to a representative of the company, participants in discussion groups have learned to contact the company for confirmation, rather than to rely on or, worse, perpetuate rumors.
Richard Widdows, a professor of consumer science at Ohio State University in Columbus, recently studied customer relations on the Internet. He estimates that no company is immune to business bashing on the Net. What's more, the cyber forum has the potential to pit free speech interests against libel law standards because people tend to be unrestrained (even rude) in their virtual behavior compared with face-to-face society. Widdows warns monitors of discussion groups to be prepared for rough language and abruptness, and to respond appropriately.
"When you get involved in the discussion, adopt the style and, more importantly, the spirit of the group." There are legal issues, too, since a court could equate accepting responsibility for a problem with an admission of guilt.
For that reason, Widdows recommends a team approach, where a response to a discussion group is worked out among employees from the legal, marketing, technical and public affairs departments.
Widdows says a company might see discussion group postings that fall into four basic categories related to products and services:
While most discussion groups carry on innocuously, companies need to know if they can, in fact, respond to harmful allegations when they come up.
- Accurate and complimentary: No need to take action.
- Accurate but critical: Contact the individual and offer to correct the problem while posting a message to the group about the attempt to resolve the issue.
- Inaccurate and critical: Intervene with the greatest diplomacy.
- Inaccurate but complimentary: Intervene to correct inaccuracy while supporting the compliments.