Businesses had better watch their backs on the Web.

Competitors, and in larger numbers, consumers, are taking to the Web to slam large, multinational corporations. Everything from fast food chains to software giants to discount stores have become targets.

Whether your company is the hunter or the hunted, should your Web site be a medium for attacks and counterattacks? Take a look at some of the recent campaigns and read what one industry expert has to say.

Corporate warfare on the Web
A recent high-profile case of “We’re better than you are” has carried over from newspapers and TV to the Web. When Pizza Hut filed suit against Papa John’s —claiming the latter’s marketing slogan is false, misleading, and deceptive—both chains were careful to place verdict responses in the press sections of their sites. While Pizza Hut’s response claimed a victory, Papa John’s reaction vowed that the ruling “will not change its focus on quality, which has made it the fastest growing pizza company in America.”

Both pizza chains turned to public relations consultants for strategy in the case, and consultants usually make the call about publishing responses on the Web. “This is not something for an IT shop to decide,” said Mark Rosenberg, a Giga Information Group analyst who specializes in online marketing. “The companies spin a story to their best interest on their Web sites because they’re vulnerable to attacks from each other on the Internet, and they want to respond accordingly.”

And often, company warfare turns into a case of David against Goliath. Since the Linux open-source movement began attracting the attention of the IT industry—and, later, consumers—Microsoft has tried several tactics to squelch its increasing popularity.

After ignoring Linux, and the circulation of an infamous memo—the “Halloween Documents”—didn’t work, Microsoft created a Linux Myths site, which advances a number of claims against Linux and open-source software development. The site argues that Windows NT outperforms Linux on speed, reliability, and security.

The rules in the advertising world state that a company shouldn’t mention its competitors in its ads if it has a larger share of the market. While it seems the same would hold true for Microsoft and its attempts to ward off open-source competition, Rosenberg said the Linux Myths page is probably a smart response.

“Folks are likely to discuss political issues on chat boards…whether the companies step in or not,” he said. “If Microsoft can put their own spin on it and take an active role, it’s more advisable for them to do that than to let it go. In fact, given certain technologies that can make the experience personalized, they can adjust their site accordingly and make it as effective a medium as possible to respond to any negative publicity.”

A cyber platform for consumers
To counter claims made on the “Myths” site, keeps a running report of Microsoft’s tactics against the open-source movement, including industry buzz that Microsoft may be working on a port of Office to the Linux platform. In addition, Linux allows users to sound off on the software giant’s products and its tactics. The lines are thus blurred between the organization’s opinions and those of its consumers.

Indeed, individuals often play pivotal roles in campaigns against large corporations. Eric Steven Raymond, an open-source software expert, won media attention after publishing the Halloween Documents online. In the documents, Microsoft acknowledged that Linux and open-source software are indeed a threat, and that aggressive measures would have to be taken to stave off competition. For his trouble, Raymond’s activities were noted by The New York Times, PC Week, The Industry Standard, CNET, CNN, and Reuters, among others.

And Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail chain, has long been the target of online attacks. Dozens of individuals, and even more consumer advocacy groups, use the Web to condemn Wal-Mart for alleged harassment of women and minority employees, for crushing local commerce, and for selling goods made by child laborers. Wal-Mart has taken the high road, refusing to respond to allegations on its site, but Rosenberg said the chain is vulnerable nonetheless.

“A person who searches AltaVista for Wal-Mart will probably also come up with Wal-Mart Sucks and other sites that bash Wal-Mart,” he said. “The Internet, through its distributed mechanisms, makes attacks much more prolific, potentially from smaller attackers.”

Wal-Mart does use its site, however, to address its stance on the unionization of its employees. The retailer remained union-free since its founding until employees in the Jacksonville, TX, Wal-Mart Supercenter’s meat department voted last month to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Wal-Mart’s response —which expressed disappointment over the vote—was buried deep in its site, while the UFCW claimed it as a victory for the American worker and proudly presented the news on its home page.

Other merchants are using their Web sites to conduct long-term damage control. McDonald’s, for instance, has faced public scrutiny for decades over its methods of rearing and slaughtering animals used in McDonald’s products. A scathing site, McSpotlight, details what it views as the multinational corporation’s unethical business practices. McDonald’s has responded with an animal welfare page, which includes a progress report that highlights its philosophy and best practices for animal handling.

Go on the defensive or rise above the bickering?
Whether you’re a small start-up or a global enterprise, there are no hard-and-fast rules for dealing with competition online, Rosenberg notes. If an aggressive stance is taken, however, a Web campaign should be a part of the strategy.

“If a company decides to respond to an attack, they’ll do it in as many ways as possible, and the Internet will become a medium in which they’ll choose to do it,” he said. “They can be selective about how they do it. If they want to appeal to the general public, they can put it on their home page and test to see what types of results they get via cookies. If they just want to target professionals and stay away from the general public, they can place ads on other Web sites to drive traffic to a certain area of their site. There’s a selectivity that the Internet provides that can be beneficial.”

He also warns that even the largest corporations shouldn’t underestimate the ability of an individual to create a public relations fiasco, as evidenced by the impact of the Halloween Documents.

“If an individual attempts to bash a corporation, they might not get the same attention they would get in the offline world that they might get in the online world,” Rosenberg said. “They could publish their views in a forum where they wouldn’t otherwise get attention. They could actually get quite a following.”

The best tactic, then, may be to take the hard line when responding to criticism. But don’t be the first one to sling mud.

“For companies to react in a passive fashion and not say anything about a case at all would be sitting on the sidelines.” Rosenberg said. “It’s more advisable to take a proactive stance and try and put the best spin on a situation, whether it’s an attack or a reaction. You want to come out and make yourself look as good as possible.”
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