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A Prototype Disaster on the Net

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Almost exactly a year after Intel's reputation went down in flames on the Internet over problems with its Pentium chip, a similar public relations disaster is in the works, but on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, the reputation in question belongs to the US government, and fallout from the disaster could be a major setback for foreign tourism and investment in the US. States like Colorado, with a high dependence on tourism and foreign investment, stand to lose millions of dollars for decisions made by another state, and the federal government.

Like the Intel disaster, a situation which was previously manageable in all the conventional ways went critical when it hit the Internet, and 30,000,000 people in nearly every country on the planet had a chance to see it. The Internet is changing the balance of power between activist groups and local governments worldwide, and the US is no exception.

The current situation is likely to be a classic public relations case study, and not just because it could dwarf the half billion dollar Intel loss. It is a prototype situation that will be repeated, with minor variations, dozens of times in dozens of countries. It is a new kind of problem that we will have to learn to deal with, thanks to the Internet.

The scenario plays like this. A political activist is convicted of a serious charge by a local government. While in jail waiting for execution, the political activist's new defense team posts a substantial volume of information about the case on the Internet. After comparing it with everything the local government has ever said about the case, most people, in most nations, conclude the activist cannot be guilty as charged. Many nations formally ask for a retrial, the activist is executed, and the local citizens, who didn't see the international protest on their local media, don't understand why fewer foreigners visit them, buy their products, or invest in their economy.

This is exactly the situation the US is now facing with the case of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Recently, the European Parliament, and the highest officials of France, Germany, and several other nations formally asked for a retrial on his behalf, yet his name isn't even recognized by most Americans. His trial was conducted in a manner considered to be below the minimum standards of fairness by most of the countries in Europe, and they've said so in a way that put their national prestige on line. These countries finance a significant portion of our national debt and are likely to vote their disappointment with their wallets. If he is executed, lost foreign investment and tourism in Colorado could run in the millions, and the effect last for years.

Public opinion has taken on a new dimension in a global economy wired by the Internet. It's possible to win a case at the national level, but lose it at the international level. The US has lost the international public opinion war over the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. It's time to begin damage control. A retrial, however politically unpopular, is the only way to limit damage at this point. Anything less may cost us more than we are prepared to pay, and the next incident like this may cost even more.

The Internet has become the ultimate battleground for public relations campaigns, especially those mounted against governments. Any defense attorney, or activist group, can get their version of a case on the Internet in detail for as little as $30 a month in most cities. All it takes to spread the word is for a few activist boards to pick up the story and include a link on their server to the defense team's Web page. Within days, millions of people worldwide can know more about a story than any newspaper would have room to print. Unless the information is countered quickly, by accurate and compelling documentation, any group could potentially cost any country, or company, millions of dollars, even if the claim were without merit.

Currently, we have no formal procedure for defending the reputation and credibility of any local, state, or federal government on the Internet, but we need to, and as soon as possible.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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