IBJOpinion

ALTOM: Beware of inciting online vendetta from clients

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Tim Altom

It started as a dispute over towing a car, and it’s now a cause célèbre, thanks to Facebook.

Last January, a Michigan towing company, T&J Towing, hauled away a 1997 Saturn belonging to Justin Kurtz. The car was in the student’s apartment parking lot and, according to Kurtz, still had its sticker prominently displayed. He contends that T&J scraped off the sticker to justify the tow and the $118 fee. It may have been T&J’s most costly tow ever.

Kurtz promptly opened a Facebook page about the incident, which quickly attracted thousands of viewers, many of whom left complaints about similar experiences with T&J. As the dispute widened, T&J lost corporate accounts and reacted by filing a $750,000 defamation suit against Kurtz. Kurtz responded in turn by filing suit against T&J for abuse of process and for violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Most observers agree that, although T&J was undoubtedly injured by Kurtz’s Facebook page, the towing company’s main purpose in suing was to shut him up. T&J’s owner, Joseph Bird, might have done better to hire a PR firm and read up on the Streisand effect.

In 2003, Barbra Streisand’s house was included in aerial shots of homes along the California coastline. The photos were publicly available, and Streisand was understandably worried about her privacy. The photographer, however, was no paparazzi; he was shooting the photos for the California Coastal Records Project and the total archive numbered some 12,000 photos. The harder Streisand pushed to have the photo of her house removed, the more publicity it garnered, and the more people who looked at the house online just out of curiosity.

More recently, the Streisand effect took a more morbid turn when Muslim radicals, offended by cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in distinctly unflattering ways, threatened to kill anyone who published anything similar, producing not a timid cessation, but a massive landslide of Internet cartoons about him. The Streisand effect is now well-known among public relations professionals and most are careful to advise their clients to avoid spitting contests like the one T&J initiated.

In today’s small-scale, do-it-yourself world of news publishing, it can be a major misstep for a company to play hardball against a little guy. Mark Twain (among other pundits) is supposed to have warned us never to pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel. Today, almost everybody online sits in that same position of awesome power, with an apparently inexhaustible barrel of ink.

It takes almost no time, and definitely no money, to create an angry Facebook page that can be seen by thousands within a few hours. Twitter users can cover the globe in minutes with fast-breaking news, as tweets morph into numberless retweets. If a prominent blogger such as Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com) or Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula) picks up the dispute, the effect can be even greater, leading to instant fame for the little guy.

A legitimately aggrieved company can actually win its battle and lose the overall public relations war. Quiet behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering doesn’t work well, either, because the other parties will often just post the legal documents.

One way to deal with Internet anger is to refuse to play the game. Lie low and hope the storm passes quickly. The public’s attention span is like a shooting star—brilliant for a while, but short-lived. The problem is that even when the unwelcome glow fades, the damage can remain. T&J’s lost corporate contracts won’t return just because the shouting dies down.

The second way to deal with online criticism is to anticipate the problem and prepare for it far in advance. Go online yourself. Get the company into blogs and social network sites to establish credibility. Public indignation is greatest against companies perceived to be well-heeled bullies. A company that shows a history of fielding moderate complaints fairly and in public can build up a lot of good will. Of course, a company that truly takes advantage of the public won’t be able to hide behind an Internet façade, but the public forgives much faster when an organization publicly apologizes and makes it up to their customer.

The latter strategy requires dedication, skill and courage. It’s never easy admitting your faux pas in front of thousands of critical eyes. It has to be done consistently, so it doesn’t become mere damage control. And it must be done honestly. But many companies have found that it pays enormous dividends. Public relations professionals know that it’s just another way of controlling the message.

The Internet doesn’t belong only to the aggrieved. Businesses, too, can buy their ink by the barrel.•
__________

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. PJ - Mall operators like Simon, and most developers/ land owners, establish individual legal entities for each property to avoid having a problem location sink the ship, or simply structure the note to exclude anything but the property acting as collateral. Usually both. The big banks that lend are big boys that know the risks and aren't mad at Simon for forking over the deed and walking away.

  2. Do any of the East side residence think that Macy, JC Penny's and the other national tenants would have letft the mall if they were making money?? I have read several post about how Simon neglected the property but it sounds like the Eastsiders stopped shopping at the mall even when it was full with all of the national retailers that you want to come back to the mall. I used to work at the Dick's at Washington Square and I know for a fact it's the worst performing Dick's in the Indianapolis market. You better start shopping there before it closes also.

  3. How can any company that has the cash and other assets be allowed to simply foreclose and not pay the debt? Simon, pay the debt and sell the property yourself. Don't just stiff the bank with the loan and require them to find a buyer.

  4. If you only knew....

  5. The proposal is structured in such a way that a private company (who has competitors in the marketplace) has struck a deal to get "financing" through utility ratepayers via IPL. Competitors to BlueIndy are at disadvantage now. The story isn't "how green can we be" but how creative "financing" through captive ratepayers benefits a company whose proposal should sink or float in the competitive marketplace without customer funding. If it was a great idea there would be financing available. IBJ needs to be doing a story on the utility ratemaking piece of this (which is pretty complicated) but instead it suggests that folks are whining about paying for being green.

ADVERTISEMENT