In the brave new wired world, corporate reputations have never been more vulnerable. If there is one purpose for which the internet is perfectly designed it is the linking of thousands of isolated, angry bees and turning them into a vengeful swarm united by a common purpose. Private letters of complaint and word of mouth are now the least of your worries. A new and more worrying form of corporate bashing is here - suck sites.
Originally an American phenomenon, suck sites (or anti-sites) usually identify themselves as companynamesucks.com. In the US, business has become seriously worried about them. The American Civil Liberties Union has been embroiled in a war of words with McDonald's and Wal-Mart, both of which are trying to shut down suck sites on grounds of trademark infringement and industrial libel. Now suck sites are over here. Type British Airways into UK Yahoo, as any angrily delayed passenger might, and the fourth match is 'British Airways - Just Say No'. Click on this and you're taken to 'British Arsways, Britain's Worst Airline', posting an assortment of alleged blunders, discrimination and mismanagement. And this points you to www.aviation-uk.com - 'British Scareways'.
Angry travellers love suck sites. Train company Connex's own suck site, www.connex-sux.co.uk, is recommended on Brighton's tourist information site, brightontoday.com, ironically under 'How to get to Brighton'. Moans here are of the 'Cattle travel to slaughter in better conditions than I go home most nights' variety.
In PR terms, if the content is out there it's a threat, full stop, and the savvy company will take it seriously. Says David Fuller, managing director of Red, a PR firm that looks after the reputations of Guinness, Nike and Odeon Cinemas: 'A lot of managing directors have been lulled into a false sense of security because they think these sites fall into the chaos category of complaint, with no following or purpose.' You ignore them at your peril. 'The credibility of these sites is gaining such a pace that firms without a policy for facing them could suffer a blow to their standing.'
But how do you respond? That's tricky. Marcus Vinton, head of interactive content at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, says attempts to close them down can backfire, and most sites rely on this. The serious ones are prepared for anything. The UK anti-McDonald's site, www.mcspotlight.org, even has an area for past and present employees to rant - seditious lavatory graffiti for all to see.
Its spokesman, 'Bob Robertson' (a pseudonym), is prepared for hostile eventualities. 'The master server is secretly located in Holland, with mirror servers on standby if any other host countries are taken offline.' He even knows how many hits emanate from the fast-food giant itself. More than 1,700 came from the McDonald's hierarchy within the first week of its launch. Since it started in 1996, in protest at the McLibel lawsuit, it reckons to have had 315,000 different visitors, accounting for an average of 800,000 hits a month.
'So far they haven't attacked us, but the goalposts are moving and the corporates are getting cleverer.'
If you do nothing, your company is open to repeated attack. Take Ikea, one of the first retailers to be targeted. Bharat Sagar, the founder of ihateikea.co.uk (and by day a magazine publisher), has taken the furniture giant on. 'I'd had several bad experiences, but what really tipped the balance was when my wife was treated so badly that something had to be done.' That was a year ago. Today the site attracts 100,000 page impressions a month, with more than 1,000 complaints about Ikea stores from detractors located anywhere from California to Norfolk.
Through irritating one man, Ikea now faces a global threat to its reputation.
Sagar believes the site is being watched, but so far has heard nothing from the store. And, while Ikea watches, ihateikea.co.uk is publishing what Sagar calls 'genuine' hate-mail (after a time, he claims, you know which is real and which is phoney), singling out specific managers, giving web space to alternative suppliers and providing tips if you 'have' to shop there.
Its organisation is an evolutionary leap from the early American suck sites, which were unabashedly geek-run and preferred scandal to substance.
Shirley Jones, PR manager of Ikea UK, looks on in sardonic admiration. 'The anti-Ikea web site is clearly not the result of anarchists,' she says. 'It contains letters of complaint, mainly about customer service and missing parts. We are quite impressed this has been put together.
It is a good way for us to find out where we need to improve. We're impressed with the customer initiative.'
For the potential corporate victim, an increasingly common approach is to register obvious suck-site names before someone else does. Volvo owns www.volvosucks.com. Chief information officer Bill Houghton says it was bought 'to protect Volvo's brand image'.
And Chase Manhattan owns www.chase.stinks.com.
Specialist sites such as www.netnames.com offer a name registration service.
Sagar recounts how, when he was at his bank requesting a loan for his Ikea site, his manager slipped off to the toilet, mobile phone in hand, and registered his own 'I hate ...' name.
Companies are in a race against a growing numbers of private individuals who register suck names in the hope of selling them to the named company - or to a web site developer with a grudge. For example, Harrodssucks.com is owned by someone in Leeds, who refused to say whether he'd offered it to Harrods (the store would make no comment). And NatWest had to go to court to wrest the rights to the natwestsucks.com address, which had been registered by someone in Wendlebury, Oxfordshire.
One of the few companies to have had success in closing down a suck site in the UK is Wal-Mart, which opened its first British store in Bristol in the summer. The retailer, now owner of the Asda chain, has numerous anti-sites, all in different countries. The mistake made by the UK one, says Ellie Doohan, Asda's in-house solicitor, is that although its address, www.walmart.co.uk, was registered, visitors found themselves on the suck site. The site fell foul of the anti cyber-squatting laws because it had registered a trade name as an address. If the squatter had instead registered it as www.walmartsucks.co.uk the site would have been legitimate. For although cybersquatting laws prevent people registering trademarked names just to sell them back to their rightful owners, actually operating a suck site is legal because it exists to invite comment and not to make money. In the US, threats from corporates to close anti-sites down have become a freedom-of-speech issue; and in the UK, they appeal to the public's sense of fair play.
The best option, then, is to deal with the embarrassment of web complaints head-on. Alan Stevens, head of digital services at the Consumer's Association, says: 'These web sites are an electronic version of marching up and down the street with a placard. We even give advice on how to set them up, because companies are becoming more and more distant from their customers.
The best firms will be the ones that redefine how they interact with consumers.'
Ogilvy's Vinton agrees that companies can no longer hide behind bland denials. 'People are decoding the meaning of corporate messages. These sites may or may not cost companies much, but they show voice. Companies will have to improve their response because the points of attack are so much wider.'
Connex's UK managing director, Olivier Brousse, the butt of many anti-Connex jibes, takes the challenge personally, playing the corporate bashers at their own game. Connex's web site now conducts mini-surveys with yes/no answers and prints the results - no matter how bad (only 16% said yes, trains were cleaner after the introduction of more cleaning staff). A dedicated page allows customers to e-mail complaints, and the company pastes onto the site its candid answers to the most frequent ones.
Brousse says: 'It is tempting for companies to keep information away from customers, but in Britain people love to debate. We've made the conscious decision to tell the truth, and we feel people are ready to understand this. It's my policy to avoid empty statements and false words, otherwise people complain more.'
Inviting comments through the web site began in February and Brousse and his team of 10 site workers aim to have replied to 5,000 to 10,000 e-mails by year-end. 'We privilege e-mails over written letters now because we want people to see the benefit of sending us an e-mail,' he says. 'We monitor the suck phenomenon and read every comment on the sites that target us. I'd like to offer them a challenge and say: 'Why don't you host these complaints on our own site?' They won't, though, because the people that run these have different motives and issues.'
Brousse has few corporate imitators. In a recent report, two-thirds of FTSE-100 companies were found to have no method of contacting customers direct via a web site. And as MT went to press, www.walmartsucks.co.uk still hadn't been registered ...
HOW TO NEUTRALISE A SUCK SITE
- Pulling down the hatch and pretending it doesn't exist will not help.
- Agree at all levels that you must take a more responsible approach to your business.
- Any communication programme directed at customers must be spearheaded by the MD.
- Accept that you will have to establish a window of response for communicating with suck sites.
- The level of detail with which you respond is less important than how you say it.
- Ensure your response is based on empirical truth rather than fluff.
You cannot stand up on political waffle.
- If you've make a mistake don't cover it up. Be honest.
David Fuller, managing director, Red Consultancy.