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Time and Depth on the Internet


by Glen Emerson Morris

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The Website of Harland and Wolff has a page with the following words, "However before we start we must emphasize that as the shipbuilder we have no control over how the owners manage their vessel..."

These words are particularly ironic since Harland & Wolff is the 125 year old Belfast shipyard whose slogan "Shipbuilder to the World" is far less associated with them than the phrase "the makers of the Titanic". The Web page is a very technical response the shipyard made to settle a point being debated among Titanic enthusiasts (http://dialspace.dial.pipex.com/hwtech. serv/hwts3.htm). More than eighty years after the disaster the public relations damage is still being felt by the company.

Given the depth of the 30 second sound byte and the short term memory of the American media, few companies have had to face the problem of their public relations disasters becoming part of society's long term memory. Harland & Wolff had the misfortune to be associated with a disaster which inspired a number of books, several motion pictures (a major budget film on the Titanic is due this summer), and a new video game which offers a walk through of a 3D model of the ship, based on blueprints obtained from Harland and Wolff ($150.00 per 60 foot long page).

Future games may simulate Three Mile Island, the Arthur Daniels Midland scandal, and Waco. None of these is likely to help the public image of the organizations involved, and even less likely to help will be tens of thousands of consumer run Websites offering unlimited megabytes of documentation on every real or imagined corporate or political scandal on the planet.

Preserving a good public image in the post Internet world is going to take some work. Even more importantly, it's going to take understanding exactly why the Internet is so fundamentally different from any other media in history. The Internet is unique for the three reasons; it offers accessibility, depth, and permanence. To put it another way, the Internet is technically capable of giving everyone access to everything, forever. Well before then, businesses will face an entirely different world.

The accessibility of the Internet has been well discussed, but the aspects of depth and permanence are just beginning to be noticed. Of the two, depth is much more likely to help businesses, once they learn how to exploit it.

After decades of dealing with media that rationed time and space, businesses now have a media nearly without restrictions to exploit. Sound bytes are history. The new world order is based details. Any business that can't defend its reputation and market share with adequate documentation on the Internet is at a fundamental disadvantage to its consumers and competitors.

In their rush to simplify issues for 60 to 90 second news stories, broadcast media increasingly misrepresent businesses actions and motivations. The Internet offers the ability for a business to make a full and detailed response to allegations made by media, without limitations of time and space; nothing else does. If a company needs to communicate fifty pages of data to prove themselves innocent to the public, they can put it on their Website.

The downside is that consumers can also use the depth feature of the Internet for their own purposes, and with unprecedented results. The first major example of this is the consumer campaign against the tobacco industry. Several Websites (like www.tobacco.org) are playing a major role in the campaign by posting long secret and extremely damaging tobacco industry documents on the Internet. These Websites are also centralizing the information collected in various trials across the country and making it commonly available to all of the attorneys suing the tobacco companies, everywhere, saving them substantial research expense.

The tobacco companies have, so far, failed to counter with a response on the Internet. Long term, this will probably prove to be an expensive strategy.

Even Harland & Wolff may find its strategy less than optimal. While the company is clearly committed to using the Internet, it hasn't begun to use the net to fully document it's role in one of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century. There are a number of facts which might give its role in the Titanic disaster a slightly different spin, such as Harland & Wolff designed the Titanic to carry three times the number of lifeboats it actually sailed with, more than enough for everyone, but the owners refused to pay for the additional lifeboats. Harland & Wolff is likely to have a long time to reconsider their strategy. Due to the Internet's quality of permanence-its ability to store vast quantities of data on storage media that is continually becoming cheaper-the Titanic disaster will be discussed and dissected for as long as there is a Harland & Wolff.

Given the nature of the Internet, it will only be a matter of time before many companies find themselves in the same boat with Harland & Wolff; facing permanent reminders of corporate mishaps that may have happened generations earlier. In the Internet Age public relations disasters never go away, they just get smaller hit counts.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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