AN ONLINE hate campaign is one of the toughest challenges a company can face but it can be countered, say public relations (PR) firms.
A virtual lynch mob will stop at nothing in trying to destroy a business, they warn.
That means companies under siege must be careful about how they tackle this kind of negative publicity, PR practitioners add.
In some cases, the mob cannot be reasoned with, so firms should choose the right battlefield - both online and off - to present their case, said PR agency Text 100's practice lead Marc Ha.
During the good times, advertisers are increasingly turning to online channels such as virtual world Second Life, blogs and Web forums to reach Internet users. But when things turn nasty, they must tread warily.
One company at the centre of such an attack is Odex, a Singapore distributor of Japanese animated movies, or anime.
Internet users turned hostile - some even issued death threats - after Odex launched a legal campaign against anime piracy.
In Odex's case, many Internet users argued their point in a reasonable, rational manner, but most went online to slam the company.
Some went further, making up lies to stir up public resentment. Some resourceful users dug up previous wrongdoings by Odex and its staff to further discredit the company.
Mr Ha said the obvious temptation is to jump in and counter the more outrageous online attacks but this could well be wrong.
First, the company under attack needs to first understand the make-up and motivation behind the online onslaught, he said.
Burson-Marsteller Singapore market leader Allison Lim said this is a key first step that companies should do.
A firm would be in a much stronger position if things go wrong by understanding its 'stakeholders' within the online world, she said.
Start by identifying the more influential voices across various online channels such as blogs or forums, and understand the issues they are concerned about, she said.
The firm should also get a sense of how these people feel about the company, and whether they would be receptive to communications from the company.
This is because some online mobs may well have worked themselves into such frenzy, or are so 'invested' in a particular point of view that they are beyond reason.
That means that if a company spokesman tries to explain the firm's position on, say, the website where many of its greatest detractors have gathered to slam it - he will probably be shouted down, virtually, by detractors.
Instead, the company should consider giving its take on more neutral forums or via interviews with bloggers, where there is a chance of being heard.
A company under siege could also set up its own Web forums to communicate with the online audience in a more controlled environment, or through mainstream media - in short, pick the 'right battlefield', said Mr Ha.
Ms Lim said that whatever the vehicle or channel, the firm needs to get its 'point of view out quickly'.
'You cannot afford to sit out these conversations,' she said, as this could allow 'rumour, innuendo and misinformation' to fester.
Mr Ha said if the firm does go online, it is important to remember that 'you cannot choose when to end (the engagement)...and the Internet never sleeps'.
This means a tremendous, long-term resource commitment, as the spokesman has to possess enough seniority to prove the company's sincerity in tackling the issues at hand.
He had better be prepared for flak too, because 'stakeholders will bring up every single previous mistake you have ever made', and expect him to answer for them, warned Ms Lim.
At the end of the day, 'there is no way to win everybody over', said Mr Ha.
But, 'if you are authentic, honest, sincere, civil and consistent in your online dealings, you may be able to get the more level-headed people to at least understand and respect your position'.
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