Just about everything is available to everyone on the Internet these days-including Web sites that criticize companies, promote litigation against employers or support union organization attempts. So what should you do when an anti-employer Web site targets your company?
First, don't panic, says Clifford H. Nelson Jr., a senior principal in the Atlanta management labor law firm of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Nelson & Schneider P.C. "Take a deep breath, recognize what you're dealing with, then assess it," he advises.
Take a thorough tour of the site. Study its content, consider how it's presented, check to see what other sites are linked to it, and try to identify the individual or organization behind the site. For example, the site may be sponsored by a union that's trying to organize your workers. It may be the work of just one environmental or consumer action group that doesn't like something your company is doing. Or it may be the product of a disgruntled employee (either former or current) trying to incite further discontent.
Once you've completely examined the site, determine what its particular impact might be, and how-or even whether-you want to respond. You may decide the Web site is not going to affect your company from an employee or a customer perspective. "And when you come to that conclusion, you might very well decide that there are better uses of your time [than reacting to the charges]," says Nelson.
If you do decide action is necessary, here are points to keep in mind:
1. You don't need to respond via the same medium. "There are better ways to get your message out, and to do it quicker and sooner," says Nelson. "You don't need to respond on the same turf." For example, if the Web site is targeting your employees with anticompany messages, you can communicate with the parties behind it in any number of ways, such as personal meetings (either one-on-one or in groups) or correspondence (letters, newsletters or bulletin-board announcements). "Employers should not forget that they have access to, and control of, the employees, at least during their working hours," Nelson notes. Similarly, you can probably also reach your customer and supplier bases in a far more personal and efficient manner using those other communication tools.
2. Be cautious about contacting the Web site operator. Anything you send to the Web site may well end up posted on that site, so don't provide additional fuel that could be used against you.
3. Remember the First Amendment. The content of most anti-company Web sites is protected as legitimate free speech, unless it includes defamation, false advertising, or trade-mark or copyright infringement. If you think you might have a legitimate legal claim, consult an attorney before taking any action.
You may be tempted to try to shut down the Web site yourself or with the help of others, but Nelson advises against it. "That's going to indicate there's something to hide," he says. "You're better off dealing with the issues raised there and showing the weaknesses in the arguments that are being made against you."
On the positive side, Nelson says, such sites can give you a tremendous amount of information on what your adversaries are doing, what they consider to be key issues, and the arguments they're advancing. So, regardless of whether you decide to take action, it's a good idea to monitor such sites regularly.
Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 13 years ago and has been writing about business and management from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since.
- Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Nelson & Schneider P.C., #400 Lenox Towers, 3400 Peachtree Rd. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30326-1107, (404)365-0900.