Camaraderie is a big selling point for SacFit, a Sacramento running and walking club. On their very first day, members are assigned to pace groups and promised "no one trains alone." So when founder and director Kenneth Press announced on Facebook that communication between groups was henceforth banned, some runners were pretty steamed.
Several members confronted him over the phone. Why couldn't they communicate? Who was he to tell them who they could talk to?
Press has a vivid recollection of the first call last May. It was a Monday morning, and he had no idea what the person was talking about. "I didn't post anything," he responded.
Press wasn't able to log on to Facebook right away, so he asked the person to send him a screen shot. They read the posting over the phone together. It was sent from a page that looked like Press's personal Facebook page. But it wasn't. "This is not me," Press protested.
The club's leader remembers that moment: "Immediately you think, 'My identity has been stolen.' "
It had taken Press six years to build SacFit. He started it after years spent training with clubs that fell short of his expectations. He'd worked to build the nonprofit into a club that offers a good value. Members pay about $100 per training season to receive individualized coaching, peer support, nutritional counseling, and discounted physical therapy, if they need it. Suddenly, though, it seemed as if it all might be in jeopardy.
Press is the face of SacFit. His personal reputation is inextricably tied to the club's. And SacFit, which Press says has always been highly regarded by members, relies almost exclusively on word-of-mouth promotion. So as he dealt with this intrusion, which felt like sabotage, he had to be careful. He worried that public conflict might put a damper on members' enthusiasm.
Over the next few days, he realized how easy it is to create a fake page, and he had a hunch it was a disgruntled former coach. But he didn't want to jump to conclusions. So he hired a computer forensics expert, who estimated that it would take two to four weeks to make a positive ID. It took a lot longer, and Facebook still hasn't taken down the page.
Ken Press has a lot of company out there. JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are just a couple of the corporate brands that have been ambushed in the Internet age. As technology evolves, new abuse tactics emerge. Companies have to monitor not just the sale of counterfeits in the physical world, but the online hawking of such wares as well. They must also watch out for trademark abuse within the domain name system, known as cybersquatting; complaints posted to gripe sites; and "brandjacking." All of these attacks can harm brands and a company's reputation.
But not all threats are created equal. Erik Gordon, director of the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Program at the University of Michigan Law School, says that in-house lawyers need to choose their online battles wisely. Gordon, a former in-house lawyer with Great American Cookie Company Inc., says corporate counsel have to consider both what's good legal advice and what's sound advice for the business. "If you start shooting off missiles," he says, "you make your company look like big jerks."