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Internet Damage Control:
How to Prevent and Defend Against a Web Mugging

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

The instantaneous worldwide reach of the Internet is both a blessing and a curse - more of a curse if a company and its management finds itself the subject of a web-based mugging, or drive-by character assassination.

By ‘mugging' - we mean when your company's products, technology, management and reputation are getting beaten up on the web.

Web muggings can take several different forms - they can be reputation muggings - focused at your products, technology or strategy, or they can be morality muggings, which are focused at your management and your treatment of employees (e.g. HR policies and layoffs.) In the extreme, they can be fantasy muggings - where bizarre hoaxes, myths and urban legends can start, such as the problems Procter & Gamble has had with their original ‘man-in-the-moon' trademark supposedly having satanic implications.

There are several preventative measures that can be taken against web muggings, and certain self-defensive methods to ‘fight back' if you're mugged. However, there are also situations when about all you can do is cut your losses. We'll start with the basics, and look at each type of mugging in turn.

Reputation Mugging

A reputation mugging takes place when web commentaries severely question your products, technology or could otherwise result in damage to your company's reputation in the marketplace. How well you can defend against this depends on many issues, such as whether your conduct invited the mugging. Assuming that it's a judgement call and you're simply dealing with some highly-vocal unhappy campers, the easiest place to start is your own web site.

Most observers, when they encounter a ‘rant' against a company or organization, will likely go to that organization's web site to see what it says. This is a opportunity to respond and neutralize criticism. Surprisingly, most companies are clueless when it comes to this basic measure of self-defense. They simply act as if the criticisms don't exist - which is a form of denial.

It is not necessary to repeat the basic mugging attacks in order to defend against them. All you have to do is to understand the basic issues they question, and make sure you have adequate counterpoints to neutralize them. This is sort of a basic principle of politics - if one party criticizes the other on an issue, a member of the other party immediate demands the floor and counter-charges. The charge and counter-charge cancel each other out. However, if the counter-charge isn't there, then the charge (correct or not) stands, and is liable to be picked up and repeated by the media in the future. Case in point - in suburban Boston, some commuter airlines are attempting to expand their service from a regional airport that is located a few miles from some national landmarks. A small number of highly-vocal critics have launched lawsuits and rhetoric against this small number of flights, oblivious to the fact that the airport has coexisted with the landmarks for 61 years. The opponents have been overruled by the courts time and time again - their arguments often rejected in very strong language (for the court). Do the commuter airlines attempt to seize the high ground and trumpet this? Surprisingly, not at all - rather, the opponent groups issue press releases and give media interviews which mis-characterize the ruling and claim some sort of victory(?) When this happens on the web, it has the potential of being more than a small, local drama being played out - it can have national and international exposure - good or bad, true or false.

Interestingly, in this case, the opposition groups have a web site which not only has reprints of their media coverage, but also expands on their rhetoric and misinformation. The regional airlines's web site is silent on the issue, and their press releases do nothing more then announce new service. They are letting the charges stand - without effective counter-charges, or even presenting correct version of the facts. They're a complacent victim of a web mugging.

Morality Muggings

In today's economic climate, morality muggings tend to be more common. These can take the form of dedicated web sites or forums that exist solely for the sake of trashing a company or cause.

Morality muggings deal with the conduct of a company towards its employees (and some times, customers), often citing inside information on what would appear to be highly unfair, unethical or dishonest situations, where management takes care of itself and is indifferent to employees. Whether this is the case or not, or is as depicted, is hard to tell - since the company often has no counter-charge or factual rebuttal. However, a rebuttal only works if there are two sides to the story. If management is essentially getting mugged due to self-inflicted wounds (very poor employee relations or highly self-serving conduct), it's almost impossible to defend against that. To do so would be to utilize transparent rationalizations or ‘spin' - which will further damage credibility. My favorite example of this is the nickname ‘Neutron Jack' acquired by Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric in the mid-1980's when he was getting rid of tens of thousands of employees. His reasoning why he didn't deserve that nickname was: "We didn't get rid of the people - we got rid of the positions, then the people had to go." That statement probably only made sense to him and his publicist. As one reviewer commented about his autobiographical book ‘Jack': "...he has been breathing his own exhaust too long."

To be sure, some of the rants posted on these sites often descend into profane bouts of adolescent name-calling, but there are enough commentaries with specific detail that would appear to come from individuals with inside information. Unless these specific commentaries are countered by the company - a reader will develop a rather specific image of the competence (and ethical behavior) of the company's management. In one specific instance, a company we knew of had ceased operations and was mentioned in one of these forums. We knew the founders, had followed the history of the company from the beginning. We had some conversations with the management in November. By the following June the company was gone. Some of the postings contained information that we were unaware of, and could only have come from an employee that was privy to a lot of inside information and was in a position to connect the dots on the conditions leading to the demise.

With Google and instant access to any searchable term, these complaints can echo across the Internet very rapidly. In fact, theree is a whole aspect of crisis communications dedicated to responding to these kinds of attacks and misinformation.

Also, there is guilt by association or guilt by similarlity. In other words, if a company similar to yours did something inappropriate, you must be doing it, too. With the huge amount of turmoil in the economy lately, there are a lot of people and political causes (and even documentary filmmakers) who are looking for someone, or some organization, to blame. There are many drive-by accusations made that are distortions or simply false.

Fantasy Muggings - Hoaxes, Myths and Urban Legends

Fantasy muggings occur from time to time. Remember the hypodermic-needle-in-a-soda-can hoax a few years back? As it turned out - it was a fraud undertaken by a few people in different parts of the country. Coke fought back immediately - with press conferences, and perhaps most effectively, released a VNR (video news release) that showed the automated can filling line - and how the uncapped (no tops) cans were inverted just before they were filled. That was perhaps the most effective counter - showing that it was impossible to have something in the can prior to filling.

There have been others over the years, which have been picked up and repeated in the media.

The best defense against a hoax, myth or urban legend is to nip it in the bud. When your company first gets wind of it - post a factual ‘reality check' prominently on your web site. Also, make sure the four prominent urban legend web sites,, The Straight Dope, and's Urban Legend Guide get copies of your press release on the subject. If you're successful at nipping it in the bud, well enough. If it still persists - perhaps send a press release out on the newswires and hold a conference call with the media if there is enough interest. Again, the objective is to discredit it, without repeating it enough to cause it to be validated.

Urban legends, once they take root, often get repeated for years. A classic example is the myth about the gradutes of the Class of 1955 (pick any year) from Yale (pick any prestigious school) who supposedly wrote down their goals. At a 30th (pick any late-career timeframe) reunion, 75% (pick a high percentage) of those who wrote down their goals had acomplished these goals.

Sound like a typical 'Power of Postive Thinking' bromide? It is - and completely false. Despite being repeated in published books and by countless motivational speakers - there have been no successful documentations of this for any version of the legend that is referenced.

Lessons from Saul Alinsky

The 1960's radical Saul Alinsky (author of Rules for Radicals) got a lot of mention in the last presidential campaign. Anyone who might be involved in reputation management or responding to Internet or media attacks should read his book. What he points out is that he used the rigidity of the organizations against them, and also cleverly distorted facts and circumstances to suit his purposes. Because the organizations were rigid and not fast enough to either recognize or counter these techniques, he was successful in many of his endeavors (one suspects he omitted the situations where he was not.) But he admits that had the organizations been flexible and asked him what he wanted, or how he proposed to get to the solution he (or the groups he was advising) were demanding, he would have been caught flat-footed. But they simply reacted and played into his plan.

It is interesting to note, some 40 years later, how many groups, organizations and causes - from both ends of the political spectrum - still use Alinsky's playbook. Even Internet media mogul Andrew Breitbart used these techniques successfully against the political action group ACORN. Taking On the 'Democrat-Media Complex'


Web muggings can take many forms - perhaps the most common being the Morality Mugging due to layoffs and corporate restructuring, and depressed stock prices. The best preventative measure against a web mugging of any sort is to have clear, timely and expansive corporate information posted on your web site. As part of your defense, have Google News Alerts (or an equivalent) set up for key terms (your company name, executives' names, etc.) which will give you a real time alert to any comments being posted. Postings should be evaluated for mis-information content and possible damage, and where appropriate, responses drafted and counter-posted. A characteristic of Internet postings that quickly becomes apparent once you have news alerts set up is how much of the Internet is simply an echo chamber. In other words, you will see the same item repeated gain and again by different sources.

A more heavy-handed response can be legal action if the posted material falls under that category. For example, the Associated Press successfully went after the graphic artist for copyright violations who used an AP photograph without permission for the Obama campaign poster "Hope".

One final caveat - with any delicate issues, such as layoffs or negative financial news, all communication with employees should be done verbally. It never fails to amaze me the number of companies that send internal emails on these topics, which is to guarantee that they will be posted to the web within 24 hours.

© 2002,2009 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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