ONE BENEFIT of owning hundreds of media outlets — newspapers, satellite networks, news channels, magazines and book companies — is that you tend to get pretty good press.
But last week, a few hours after Rupert Murdoch spent $580 million to acquire MySpace, a social networking Web site so beloved by kids it now has more page views than Google, the septuagenarian media mogul got a pie in the face.
Personal ads for Murdoch began spreading like a virus across MySpace, each one carrying a photo of Rupe and a personal message for the network’s 22 million members. Here’s an example: “What’s up homies! I’m sexy sassy and so close to death, send me a message!”
If that doesn’t sound like something Murdoch would say, it’s because he didn’t say it. It was a spoof — the MySpace equivalent of a nasty book review attributed to Jeff Bezos on Amazon.com, or a raunchy note on an Apple Computers bulletin board attributed to Steve Jobs.
There’s nothing surprising about mogul bashing in the new-media world. The blogosphere is a paradise for hoaxers, hate mailers and anonymous gripers. Web sites likeIhatestarbucks.com, Dellsucks.net and Northworstair.com are so ubiquitous a part of the corporate landscape, it’s almost a badge of honor at this point for a major brand to have its own army of online detractors. Google “I hate Google” and you’ll get 5 million hits.
What’s surprising is the stance of News Corp. president Peter Chernin. Asked if the company would spike the phony Murdoch profiles, Chernin’s answer was remarkably laissez-faire. News Corp., he said, hadn’t bought MySpace to censor it. “It would be a dopey thing to do.”
WELCOME TO THE NEW SCHOOL of transparent PR, in which corporate executives create public forums to deal candidly with their image problems and customer blowback. GM, Boeing and Microsoft have resident bloggers paid both to hype new products and to generate feedback from disgruntled customers. Why shouldn’t a media company like News Corp. follow suit?
Providing a venue for subscribers to bash your products might sound counterintuitive. Media executives have long been trained to counter every negative news story with a PR blitz or a lawsuit. But nowadays, marketing consultants tend to advocate a slightly different approach.
“When people hate your movie and it sucks, or they hate your brand or food or coffee, they need to be able to quickly get to you and tell you that,” said Promise Phelon, whose San Jose-based company Phelon Consulting, specializes in customer relations at big companies like Hewlett-Packard and Adobe.
Phelon doesn’t have much sympathy for online detractors. She calls them “terrorists.” But she says their feedback is often useful. “It’s like having a customer advisory board that you don’t pay for. You need to be monitoring them and you need to be aware of what they say.”
Freud Communications, a PR firm whose clients include Pepsi, Nike, AOL and Sony, and which recently opened a New York affiliate to expand its practice, has a rapid-response system for handling crisis marketing. But Freud vice chairman Kris Thykier is quick to point out that a company’s reaction to Internet static can cause more problems than it solves.
“If a story appears somewhere obscure on the Web, it is not necessarily damaging,” Thykier told me.
That may come as small consolation to Michael Bay, who watched in recent weeks as anonymous snipers on Web sites like Ain’t It Cool News emerged from test screenings and took pot shots at “The Island.” Here’s one such rant from a character on Ain’t It Cool News who calls himself the Cavalier: “Michael Bay, I now understand, represent [sic] the worst of what Hollywood is about. And they wonder why audience attendance is down?”
Such grumbling isn’t especially useful now that “The Island” is a certifiable flop. But it might not have been a bad thing to have such feedback before it was ever greenlit.