TUCoPS :: Web :: General :: webwar.txt

PR Firm declares war on "Rogue" web sites (like the "Kmart Sucks" site)

PR firm declares war on 'rogue' web sites Copyright (C) 1996
Nando.net Copyright (C) 1996 The Associated Press

   SAN FRANCISCO (Jun 10, 1996 09:23  a.m. EDT) -- To advertisers
and activists, the Internet is nirvana -- unlimited space and
the chance to get their message to the world. To the public
relations firm of Middleberg and Associates, it's a potential

   Before the World Wide Web, people unhappy with individual
companies were reduced to convincing a news organization they
had a legitimate gripe or standing around handing out leaflets
at corporate headquarters.

   Now, all it takes is a weekend coding some HTML files and
every complaint or concern they've ever had is instantly
available to millions.

   "There was the 'Kmart Sucks' site, created by a disgruntled
employee who was saying a lot of mean and nasty things about
Kmart. Then there was the First Bost on site, where a former
employee published proprietary salary figures," said Don
Middleberg, whose firm protects its clients from attacks on the

   "Companies spend small fortunes to create a brand image and
something called good will," he said. "These sites are actively
destroying them."

   To counter the threat, Middleberg's firm monitors the Web for
what he calls "rogue" sites, then finds the people who created
them and attempts to convince them to go off-line.   "If gentle
persuasion doesn't work," he said from his New York office, "you
need to bring in the lawyers."

   Over and above First Amendment concerns, threats of legal
action are a long way from the golden vision of the Web as an
democratic leveler rhapsodized about by Howard Rheingold, who
has written several books about the ethos of the Internet.

   "The Internet puts the masses back in mass media. It lets
anyone publish their manifesto for all the world to read,"
Rheingold said from his home near San Francisco.

   Those days are over, countered Middleberg.

   "Rheingold's perceptions of where things are might have been
true a few months ago," he said. "But this is big business.
Things have changed. This is no longer a cottage industry.
Companies have spent millions of dollars on this. They're going
to fight to protect their sites."

   "If the lawyers decide to go after someone and a company is
willing to spend the dollars, they certainly can threaten and
make life very difficult for people ."   It's legally unclear,
however, how much power companies actually have. Merely making
derogatory comments is not illegal, said David Maher, co-chair
of the subcommittee on Internet Trademark Issues of the
International Trademark Association.

   "If you have an individual who doesn't like Ford motor cars or
Burger King and says rude things about them, the First Amendment
provides quite a shield. Just because people are saying bad
things about you, you can't necessarily stop them," he said.

   Not only is truth a defense against libel, but trade libel law
requires that a company must show it actually has been damaged, a
higher standard than individuals, who must show only that their
reputations have been damaged, Maher said.

   But legal or not, even the threat might be enough to shut down
smaller sites, said Jonathan Hall, a spokesman for the
environmental group Greenpeace -- which maintains an active Web

   "I wouldn't be surprised if people gave in if they got a call
and were told to 'remove this or there will be legal action.'
They might do it because they don 't know their legal rights,"
he said.

   Greenpeace does, which is probably why the association of
nuclear energy producers Middleberg recently spoke to considers
it such a threat.

   "They are scared to death of groups like Greenpeace, who are
very clever in how they use the Net to get a message out,"
Middleberg said.

   Not unexpectedly, Middleberg won't name his clients, though he
says he's added eight to the list in the last six months.

   Other public relations firms say they haven't heard of anyone
using a similar strategy. Curtis Kundred of Fleishman Hillard
International Communications deem ed it a short-run approach
that will backfire in the end.

   "I would hope it's not the job of a public relations firm to
muscle someone into backing down from expressing their beliefs
online," added Amy Oringel of Int erActive Public Relations

   Up until now, the Web has provided a level playing field, a
place where "Joe Schmoe can have just as much credibility as
CNN," said writer Martin A. Lee, whose book "Unreliable Sources"
was an expose of the public relations industry.

   "Money is the great unleveler in this equation," he said. "We
seem to be in the crux of a shift, when the whole equilibrium is
shifting from 'a thousand flowers blooming' to a corporate
market. It's disturbing."

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