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Ken Starr is Ruining My Life, Too

Ruining Bill Clinton's life was not enough for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr; the traffic jam caused by the release of his Report online has made my working life miserable. For several days after the report went live, I couldn't move around America Online at all. Weeks earlier, I had scheduled an author chat on CompuServe. The night of the chat -- September 15 -- even the host couldn't get on the system. The release of the Starr Report was one of those milestone moments for the Internet, and contains many lessons for crisis communications online.

I've made a point of visiting the web sites of companies in crisis, just to see how they deal with adversity. What I've seen so far has been uniformly dismal. One company actually won an award for online crisis communications, even though viewing their home page required software plug-ins that were not readily available at that time. Most journalists could not view the site. When I installed the software I needed to see it, I was surprised to find no mention of the crisis on their home page. This is award-winning work?

Speed Matters

The Internet has accelerated the pace of news reporting. As release of the Starr Report illustrated, you must be quick if you're going to get the traffic. According to one Associated Press story, 5.9 million people accessed the Starr Report the first two days it was online. The net didn't crash from the traffic in part because news organizations installed the 445-page report on their own sites within minutes of its appearance online. By responding so quickly, the web sites of TV networks and large daily newspapers were able to hold traffic at their own sites rather than losing it to the Library of Congress.

When your company or client is in a crisis situation, if you don't respond in time, you lose control of the story to some other source. No matter what that source is, it's not going to present your side of the story in as flattering a light as you can. That's why you need to put an obvious link to crisis information on your home page within minutes of a story breaking out. You need to avoid any fancy graphics or gimmicks that will slow down your web site or limit the number of people who can view your crisis coverage.

Original Documentation

The reaction to the release of the Starr Report on the Internet also shows the public's new craving for original documentation. Nearly a million people downloaded the entire Starr Report the first day it was up. I doubt many people want to wade through this gigantic document looking for the juicy parts; they want the original documentation as back-up, so that, if necessary, the can verify what the media is telling them.

Similarly, you should attempt to catalog every scrap of information you can find online about your company's crisis. If you cannot prevent damaging information from getting out, you need to take the opposite approach. That's right -- you need to help the press and the public find all the information about your crisis, both unfavorable and favorable, so that you can frame the way it is seen.

When you offer links to news coverage of your crisis, you provide access to original documentation, but you place the information in context. If the press and public believe you have thoroughly cataloged coverage of the crisis, they will return to your site again and again, rather than going through the tedious process of finding source articles themselves. Some of the benefits you get from becoming the source for news about the crisis are:

  • You control the order in which the articles appear.

  • You can write annotations for each link, directing traffic to the most favorable stories, yet still providing access to unfavorable ones.

  • You can provide links to your own side of the story, including your news releases and statements from company spokespersons.

  • You can correct misinformation. For example, you could have a link to an article in The New York Times with an annotation that says, "While most of the information in this article is correct, the comments on the source of the illness are contradicted by findings of the FDA team investigating the outbreak."

  • You get repeated opportunities to offer your own spokesperson for interviews.

If your site becomes the source of information for the press and public, journalists will use your site rather than, say, C|Net or NewsPage. Having the traffic come to your site provides another benefit: your traffic logs will show which media outlets are searching your site. If you see that someone from the domain "abcnews.com" just spent two hours cruising your site, you can be pretty sure a story is in the works. Your logs will even show exactly what pages they looked at -- and what they missed. You lose this valuable intelligence when you bury your head in the sand and pretend a crisis isn't happening. The press and public will go elsewhere, along with your opportunity to frame perceptions about the crisis.

STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at OnlinePublicity@yahoo.com.

Resources: Information Filters

You can use Internet-based information filters to find both news coverage and gossip about your company. Here are some helpful resources:

Northern Light
An amazing new search engine. Plug in your company name (for example) and Northern Light searches not only the web, but also its own proprietary database of 4500 news sources which are not freely available online. You can read capsule descriptions of proprietary articles for free, or get the full text on a pay-per-view basis.

Information Filtering Resources
University of Maryland's collection of links to online information filters.

Deja News
Free, fast search of Usenet newsgroups.

STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at info@PatronSaintPR.com.

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