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Keeping an eye on the world Featured

9:32am EDT July 22, 2002

Hacker.

The word sends chills down your spine.

Several months ago, hackers attacked the servers at E-trade, the online company that allows individuals to buy and sell stocks from their personal computers. Apparently, no information was compromised and there was no damage other than a temporary suspension of service.

But the PR problem could have been huge. In an electronic age of instant communication, reports of blocked and delayed trades seemed to instantly circumnavigate the globe.

E-trade -- and companies like Yahoo, Amazon.com and eBay, which were also attacked -- spent time and money to reassure clients while the public relations department geared up for a massive spin session. It had to get the word out that the system was working properly and answer questions raised by news media around the country.

But first, it had to know what was being said about its operation. And for that, E-trade turned to VMS, a company that monitors and retrieves information about business from television and radio.

"We were able round up media coverage from across the country and e-mail video to them, give them hard copy videocassettes from all across the country, literally within hours," says Rodger Roeser, general manager for the Ohio office of VMS. "They were able to take a look at this and perform a content analysis to understand how they were being portrayed in the media, so when they did put together a satellite feed, they already knew what was being said. They understood how it was being portrayed.

"They could spin it accordingly and they could help the public understand that everything's going to be OK. And that's very, very important."

To do that, E-trade needed to see reports from the major networks, from MSNBC, CNBC and CNN and even see how the huge news radio stations were presenting the story. In emergency situations, VMS can provide access to the top 75 magazines and newspapers around the country.

"That we were able to provide a company in San Francisco with a videocassette from New York two hours after it aired, I think is just phenomenal," Roeser says.

Whether it's a problem that must be explained or simply a vehicle for better public relations, knowing what is said about your company and how it's being perceived is critical. For E-trade, the importance went right to the bottom line.

"It affects whether people are going to advertise on their Web site; it affects whether people are going to use them or put their trust and faith in them," Roeser says. "We're there to give our clients a boost and get coverage and provide CYA to them. We're their 'cover-your-ass.'"

The matrix

The walls of VMS' offices are lined with VCRs and banks of videocassettes. The tapes contain hours of recorded programming from local stations. Each of the more than 65 VMS offices is responsible for its own airwaves and at least one of the national channels.

"Among the VMS collective, we have virtually every television and radio station, every cable, every syndicated broadcast in America," Roeser explains. "I am in charge of all of Ohio, so any client, any corporations, any entities inside Ohio, I would take care of. We record all of this data. It's sort of a collective matrix. The office in Ohio is responsible for capturing all this Ohio coverage and certain syndicated, cable and network programs."

Among his clients, Roeser counts local governments, professional sports teams and many public relations firms.

"The vast majority of PR firms, and hopefully PR executives, have been so well trained that they need to be getting proof of performance," he says. "They need to know what kind of coverage they're getting (for their clients) and where they're getting coverage."

A couch potato's dream come true

Recording the programs isn't the problem. A bank of televisions and VCRs handles that. But someone has to watch all those programs and listen for references to local entities -- businesses, area governments, sports teams.

Roeser hires college students, housewives -- anybody with a little bit of time on their hands -- to turn their attention to the tube. Viewers are trained on how to watch and record references to a company. So if Cleveland's Drew Carey talks about your company, you'll know.

There are no subscription fees or contracts. VMS' account representatives contact a company when it makes an on-air appearance.

"The client can then decide whether he needs to get a product," Roeser says.

Those products include transcripts, monitoring reports, broadcast schedules, audio and videocassettes and laser boards.

For Roeser, the significance of the service is clear.

"It's so intrinsically important to be able to provide the feedback that you receive from the public and the media to make your product better," he says. "We provide that feedback, so they can align their clients, align their companies, to make things in line with their image or to usurp their image and make it better so they can grow the company.

"If you don't know what's going on out there, you're really in a lot of trouble." How to reach: VMS, (216) 579-4103

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.