Monday, April 28, 2008

How to Handle Internet Rumors

The new world of the social media can sometimes seem overwhelming. Charges of misdeeds — whether true or not — can spread at the speed of a mouse click. So how do you protect and preserve your reputation?

You do what food giant Heinz did … you set the record straight and you do it quickly.

In its May 2008 issue, English men’s magazine Loaded ran a photo of a faux can of Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti — featuring tiny pasta shaped like swastikas instead of letters — with copy stating that the food company made the product especially for the German market during World War II. The brief article also bore a stamp claiming it was “100% true.”

It was an old and totally unfounded rumor that had been debunked way back in 2002 by Snopes.com and Heinz was not amused. Its lawyers were on the phone with Loaded immediately, and the magazine issued an apology “to Heinz and to anyone who was offended by the article, which we admit was false and irresponsible.” You can read the apology here; but be aware that, generally speaking, Loaded is NSFW (not safe for work).

British newspaper The Wigan Evening Post quoted a Heinz spokesman who said: “Perhaps the article came from one of those weird Internet rumors that are not based on facts. Whatever the origins, the magazine clearly chose not to check the facts and made this completely erroneous claim.

“We carefully track any references to Heinz and, as soon as the article appeared, we were on to Loaded to make a complaint,” he continued. “We are pleased that the magazine has set the record straight.”

The apology was picked up all over the blogosphere and in publications ranging from The Times to Food Business Review.

It’s a great example of how an image-savvy company that monitors the blogosphere can take control of an issue before it can become a crisis.

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