Copyright 2002
Lorenzo Kaufman

The celebrity your firm represents has approximately 2,000 different fan-run web sites about him. That is 2,000 different people helping you promote your client. That also represents 2,000 different places where people can look to find information about your client. You think your job just got easier, when suddenly you read a rumor of your client that you know is not true, but now it is brought up on 2,000 different web sites and addressed 2,000 different times. Your job just got much harder.

It was not originally supposed to be this way. When public relation firms decided to move to the Internet, they mainly saw the positive effects that this information source could provide. They thought about web sites that could play demos of a band’s music from their new album or web sites devoted to smaller television shows that could build a bigger fan base than advertising could ever hope to achieve. However, the industry was very near-sighted in its approach to the Internet. It failed to see the problems that would stifle public relation specialists and add new dimensions to crisis prevention and publicity control.

In the realm of falsities, there are “lies, damn lies, and the internet,” jokes scribe Steve Ulfelder. The draw back to viral marketing, relying people to promote something by word of mouth, is that when the news is bad news or false news, the news travels just as fast if not faster.

In 1997, there was an Internet fable about Tommy Hilfiger, the clothing designer, appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and making racial comments until Winfrey had to toss him off the show. Immediately, the rumor spread rapidly in emails along with newsgroups and urban music web sites “usually accompanied by a call to boycott the designer,” according to These net smear campaigns target many different people usually in the entertainment business. Type in Tom Cruise in most any search engine, and you will usually find at least one page about his alleged homosexuality. These pages are based on no facts, but are hard to prosecute for slander because the rumor spreads so quickly, the source is often hard to find. Unlike the gossip columnists, these rumors are more damaging because the Internet allows any person with a computer to become a web publisher, and differentiating news from gossip on the internet is much harder because of the wide variety of sources.

Another public relations concern on the Internet has been the practices of certain web sites, most notoriously Napster which allowed the free download and exchange of movies and music from their site. There are numerous sites that allow the user to attain copies of unreleased music and movies not yet in theatres. Though this might seem like a marketing dilemma, public relation practitioners have the equally hard job of supporting their entertainment industry client in their campaign to stop the illegal pirating of movies and music. The job is difficult because the campaign has to convince a public to stop doing something that is popular and inexpensive. The public relations people that represent Metallica and the other musicians who spoke out against Napster, had to launch a campaign to educate the consumers on the damage the pirating does to the bands themselves. Through effective communication procedures, they were able to defeat Napster, currently off the Internet, and keep their clients' strong fan base intact.

Other public relations problems occur frequently due to miscommunication on the Internet. Besides monitoring the web site for rumors or incorrect data, public relation specialists must also learn how to handle a crisis like the Tommy Hilfiger case.


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