'Bots All The Fuss?

Online Publicity Catches Eatr's Company In Unexpected Whirlwind

July 28, 2009|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Robert Finkelstein, an expert in robotics, has had his own company in the field for nearly a quarter century without controversy. He never paid attention to blogs, only just last year launched his company's Web site, and never felt the need to issue any press release for his work.

That is, until blogs and Internet news sites feasted on his EATR project.

EATR - for Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot - is a robotic ground vehicle that Finkelstein's small company is designing with Defense Department funding, which can sustain itself on long missions by foraging for twigs, leaves and other kinds of vegetation. But a misinterpretation of how the machine will power itself touched off wild speculation on the Internet earlier this month that the Maryland company was building flesh-eating robots at the behest of the Pentagon.

Scores of blogs and news sites, including FoxNews.com, ran with the unfounded reporting. The online furor caught the companies off guard and briefly turned into a major distraction as they tried to deal with the speculation in the echo chamber of the Internet. Their experience illustrates the challenges companies and public relations agencies are now navigating in the hyper-connected Internet world.

"The media environment is constantly changing and I think that's the biggest obstacle or hurdle" companies face right now, said Todd Scott, spokesman for Himmelrich PR, a public relations firm in Baltimore. "You used to know what the rules were, and now the rules change every day."

Finkelstein's company, Robotic Technology Inc., and its partner, engine-developer Cyclone Power Technologies Inc. of Florida, learned a few lessons. "I was shocked," said Finkelstein, president of RTI in Potomac. "For the future, I learned I shouldn't be so cavalier about information that goes out into the world."

Many companies are monitoring what people write online about their brands and try to nip bad publicity in the bud. It's hard to tell where the next wave of negative publicity will come from because of the democratic nature of the Web.

Facebook, for instance, faced a worldwide torrent of criticism earlier this year when a consumer blog pointed out a change in its terms of service that could affect users' privacy. And United Airlines was mocked by a country music singer in a YouTube video, now watched more than 3.8 million times, for destroying his guitar during baggage handling in March.

For two companies more accustomed to geeky coverage in science publications, their misinterpreted project received wacky, A-list attention on the Internet. PerezHilton.com, a popular celebrity gossip news site, featured EATR as a machine that ate "dead bodies" in a blog post, with a photo of Robocop. Gizmodo, one of the most popular tech blogs, proclaimed the U.S. government was funding development of a flesh-eating robot.

The speculation that launched EATR into the popular consciousness as a carnivore can be traced back to a straightforward press release from Cyclone on July 7 that talked about the next phase of development for EATR. From that release, the word "biomass" was widely misinterpreted - possibly first by a writer at Popular Science, according to the companies - to mean it could feed on human bodies, such as corpses on a battlefield.

It reached a fever pitch in mid-July, when FoxNews, FastCompany and CNET published online reports repeating the speculation, without first checking with RTI or Cyclone.

The companies' Web sites were swamped with thousands of visitors. The project's main sponsor - a research arm of the Defense Department known as DARPA - wanted the public record corrected. Cyclone issued a second press release July 16, calling EATR a "vegetarian" - leading to even more news coverage. A front-page story about EATR being a "vegetarian" ran in The Guardian, a large newspaper in Britain.

Chris Nelson, head of investor relations for Cyclone who helped craft the first press release, said the experience left him believing that trying to control news on the Internet is "like trying to control the wind."

"You can only put out what you believe to be the most accurate information and hope it's received the way you want it to be. But you can't control it," he said. "I think companies that go through the same cycle of absurdity ... need to understand that in the end, people are talking about you," Nelson added. "People are noticing what you're doing. And that's a good thing."

Harry Schoell, Cyclone's CEO, said his next-generation steam engine was recognized last year by Popular Science magazine as an "invention of the year."

So did the thought of using animals and dead bodies ever cross Schoell's mind? Never, Schoell said.

"It's not even efficient," he said, describing the human body as essentially a sack of water. "It's not practical. It's ridiculous."

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