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Odwalla controls damage on the Net

Juice maker Odwalla is the latest company to turn to the Net to tell its side of the story.

The Web is becoming a tool for crisis management. Odwalla today launched a site on the Internet to handle questions and concerns about the voluntary recall of some of its popular juices, hoping to broadcast its side of the story to the public.

Corporate disasters, such as the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria found in some kinds of Odwalla juice and previously publicized scares with tainted Tylenol aspirin and contaminated Jack In The Box hamburgers, cause marketing and public relations nightmares. Until now, companies have held press conferences and faxed press releases to the media to broadcast their side of the story. They also take out full-page ads in newspapers.

But increasingly, corporations are turning to the Internet to help manage a crisis. The Net reaches a mass audience quickly and in a cost-effective way. Companies also find that launching a Web site is a good way to stop rumors from spreading, and sometimes that's a necessity.

Even the government is getting into the act. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, has created a Web site to provide tips on how to handle crises such as natural disasters.

Of course, there are drawbacks to using the Web. Only about one-third of the U.S. population has a computer and fewer still go online.

But anything companies can do to get the word out is a plus, experts say. "It's ridiculous when organizations don't use Web sites in a crisis situation," said Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communications + Technology. "Not doing anything is like saying, 'We don't care.'"

For example, when a Boeing 747 operated by TWA crashed mysteriously this summer, Boeing didn't offer any details or even acknowledge the disaster on its Web site. With an information void, wild rumors speculating on the cause of the crash began floating around cyberspace, according to Holtz. Finally, TWA posted a generic letter on its site that said information would be posted as it became available.

"Information rushes in to fill a vacuum when a company doesn't provide it," Holtz said. "And it will most likely end up on the Web whether it's true or not."

Newsgroups are also ideal for spreading rumors, which can make a corporate crisis worse. "Anyone could post false information in a newsgroup and if a consumer did a search they would find negative information as opposed to reliable information from the company," said Margaret Stude, account executive for the Weber Group, a public relations consultancy. "Misinformation can spread like wildfire, and it's important for a company to release factual information," she said.

Concerned Netizens were involved in a heated discussion about the Odwalla incident on October 31. Some asked what juices were affected and others expressed concerns because they recently drank the juice.

The company says it addresses these questions and concerns on its site by providing questions and answers, press releases, and a list of recalled juices.

Odwalla has a high degree of customer loyalty, according to Stude, and "it seems like they are making every effort to maintain that by launching a Web site."

Holtz agrees and says that the site provides useful information, but Odwalla should provide more than just press releases. "If they really want to be objective, they should be linking to stories about Odwalla in newsgroups and in the press," he said.

Odwalla executives said they "might consider adding that feature to the site in the future."