INTERACTIVE: BAD RAP: COMPANIES PATROL INTERNET FOR ONLINE ABUSE: NEW SERVICES HELP MARKETERS SCAN NET FOR CRITICISM

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The internet can be a double-edge sword when it comes to marketing. In addition to helping companies promote their products, the Net can also be fertile ground for abuse, with unhappy customers posting complaints to newsgroups, bulletin boards, chat rooms and Web sites.

To prevent online damage to brands and reputations, some companies are monitoring the Internet on their own, while others are looking outside for help.

M-3 SCOPES NET FOR CLIENTS

Marketing communications company Middleberg Interactive Communications, New York, has launched a new service called M-3; the "3" stands for monitoring, analysis and response. M-3 scans the Internet daily for online complaints, then offers its clients advice on how to respond. The information also helps clients prepare proactive online strategies based on the information.

M-3 uses monitoring services from E Watch, White Plains, N.Y., to supplement its own scanning efforts. Middleberg Interactive clients include Walt Disney World, Andersen Consulting and Duke Power Co.

Astute companies realize that it takes only one person online with a grudge or bad information to cause damage to a brand, said Unity Stoakes, Middleberg Internet communications specialist.

"Because it's a global medium and because it's so fast and relatively inexpensive, a single individual is capable of wreaking havoc on a very large company," said Mr. Stoakes.

"In traditional advertising media, the person doesn't have that kind of power," he said.

FED-UP CUSTOMERS TAKE ACTION

And it's not just unhappy consumers posting complaints online. Interactive agency Thinking Media, New York, created a Web site called Nynexsucks, at www.nynexsucks.com, featuring a Job Loss-o-Meter and phone numbers to call to "rant" and "rave."

Owen Davis, president of Thinking Media, said he created the site because he was unhappy with Nynex's business service. Mr. Davis has also registered a domain for BellAtlanticsucks.com, although he has not yet launched the site.

He said he's waiting to see if his phone service improves under Bell

Atlantic's new ownership of Nynex.

A Bell Atlantic spokesman said the company monitors the Nynexsucks site and responds to legitimate complaints through e-mail, the phone or other methods.

"It's turned into another means of communicating with customers," said the spokesman.

Perhaps the most extreme example of brand damage originating from one person is Intel's 1994 Pentium chip problem. A professor found a tiny glitch that could make a chip fail, and after unsuccessful attempts to get a response from Intel, he turned to Internet newsgroups.

The gripe spread like wildfire, and pretty soon "Intel's chip problem" was in mainstream newspapers and on TV. The company eventually took a $475 million write-off to replace the chips.

RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH

Intel has since become proactive, monitoring the Internet on its own. Clif Purkiser, Intel manager of the Internet product marketing group, said the marketer now also publishes extensive documentation any time a problem is found with a product.

Still, individuals have the right to free speech, and corporations can't prevent them from presenting opinions online, some Internet advocates argue.

"The real problem for a company is, you get shot and you didn't even know anyone was aiming a gun at you," said Andy Marken, president of Marken Communications, which represents Internet service provider TCG Cerfnet.

MCDONALD'S WATCHES NEWSGROUPS

"ISPs try to police themselves, filtering out companies that do a lot of spamming. . . . Beyond that, we find it very difficult to usurp First Amendment rights."

In a newsgroup for McDonald's (alt.mcdonalds) last week, the topics ranged from bringing back the McDLT to employees who spit in food.

One user told the newsgroup that all fast-food companies use reconstituted, pressed potatoes sprayed with liquid sugar on the outside. A McDonald's manager quickly stepped in and explained that fries are cut from real potatoes then flash frozen.

BLOW YOUR ENTIRE PR BUDGET

McDonald's does informal online monitoring and handles problems on a case-by-case basis, said a spokeswoman.

"[Online griping] can harm sales revenues, as well as cause some companies to spend their entire PR budget trying to recover," said Amy Jackson, managing

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