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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 14:19 GMT
Companies learn to live with online fury
By BBC News Online's Briony Hale
Negative marketing has never been easier.
While companies work long and hard to build up brand and reputation, it is quick and easy to shoot them down via the internet.
The difficulty comes in knowing which sites are a forum for genuine criticism and which are blatantly untrue.
Firms such as Microsoft, Lloyds Bank, NTL, BT Openworld and ExxonMobil are all dogged by hate sites, and regularly monitor the web to gain insight into the complaints and allegations being posted.
Companies have become increasingly clued up to the risks, and often buy up potentially harmful domain names.
But the past experience of legal battles - which usually result in negative media publicity - have made companies increasingly shy of heading to court despite the harm being done to brands.
I have never stopped to ponder much about a cup of Starbucks coffee.
But whilst browsing the internet, I was assaulted by the information that my cup of coffee contained an "untested, unlabeled, potentially hazardous genetically engineered ingredient called recombinant bovine growth hormone".
Furthermore, I am invited to send a fax to the firm's chief executive, attend a protest rally next week and add my own comments to the site.
While I have no idea whether my Starbucks coffee does indeed contain such an unattractive sounding thing, it is easy to sow a seed of concern.
Starbucks says this hormone is in some US milk, but that their customers can request organic milk.
Bearing a grudge
"The majority of these sites are set up by former employees with a grudge and dissatisfied customers with nothing else to do," said Nick Lockett, a cyber lawyer at Stanbrook & Hooper.
"Then there are a small percentage of loonies who register a site with anybody they fall out with," he added.
But, even when a site is clearly slanderous, firms are still nervous of heading to court and sceptical about whether a ruling can effectively be enforced.
"Companies are better off dealing with it in a PR way - addressing the issues by putting forward the positive arguments," says Anthony Maton, head of dispute resolution at KLegal, KPMG's legal affiliate.
"Legal proceedings will, by nature, be against people who are fanatical and emotional about their cause," says Mr Maton.
Exxon's PR efforts
ExxonMobil, which operates under the brand name Esso in the UK, is an example of one firm going down the positive marketing route.
A StopEsso campaign was launched last May, making allegations about the oil giant's policy on climate change and casting aspersions about its political funding.
Exxon has produced a fact sheet and a special section of their website countering the claims made by StopEsso.
"We strongly refute the allegations they make and deplore their attempts to smear our name in this way," said the firm in a statement.
"Environmental groups claim that we made substantial contributions to the Bush election campaign in order to influence the administration.
"This is not true. ExxonMobil Corporation did not contribute to the Bush Presidential Campaign."
David Eglinton, ExxonMobil spokesman, said: "We monitor what's put up on that site, we respond," admitting that it took up a fair amount of management time.
Some companies accept that hate sites can be constructive, while KLegal recommends that companies monitor the websites as part of brand management.
Both BT Openworld and NTL say they have dialogue with the sites and some negotiation over the content.
"We accept that there is criticism and that it's an opportunity for people to vent that anger," said a spokesman for BT.
"If it gets to a level of personal attack, we need to address it," he said, adding that some issues have been successfully resolved.
"It's a fact of corporate life and can be a useful sounding board," said NTL's Malcolm Pudley.
Going to court
While the majority of companies take the commercial decision to live with online criticism, there are some cases where the firm feels so aggrieved that it plumps for legal action.
Drug firms, for example, have been notably active in going to court over sites that slam their drugs.
And there are many cases over the use of a web address that could be mistaken for the actual company website.
In the UK, an internet service provider (ISP) or web host can be ordered to pull the plug on a site that is defamatory.
But the site can re-register outside of the UK, or just change its name and start reproducing the content.
"The biggest problem with the internet is that it is global and decentralised... once on the internet it will always be visible," says Dr Yakman Akdeniz of the cyberlaw research unit at Leeds University.
Judges are wary of gagging public opinion by barring genuine criticism sites after some companies sent out removal notices on the assumption that the ISP would abandon the site without investigating whether the claims are true or false.
And firms have been put off by a landmark case launched by McDonald's which took two years, cost a fortune, spawned lots of anti-McDonald's sites and got huge amounts of publicity.
"It's not enough to rely on the law and registering domain names - technically there is no solution," Dr Akdeniz said.
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