635642589994637065-sucksIn March 2015, a new top-level internet domain started selling new domains, but to many in the online and branding worlds, it was all blackmail. The controversy made news, mainstream and online, for a couple months, especially when the US and Canadian internet regulators said they would look into it.

But what really caught my eye (well, ear really), was how the company selling the .sucks domains responded to its critics. In all the interviews I heard and saw, the same CEO was quoted saying the same messages, and stuck to his guns in a polite and lighthearted way. I may not agree with the company’s business practices, but I gotta admire their media relations strategy and execution.

Here’s the story: This past year a bunch of new top-level domain names were offered for sale. When the domain .sucks became available, the company selling this top-level domain, Vox Populi, began by charging a lot of money to brands for their .sucks domains, to prevent the public from owning a domain that might leave their brand open for criticism.

The .sucks sale began with a 60-day sunrise period, where the domain names are available only to trademark holders to buy their names before they go on sale to the general public. Normally a sunrise period for a new domain name would see the domains being sold for a few hundred each, but the company selling .sucks, was asking $2500 US. And that would be the price every year. Many critics called this brand blackmail, since companies who didn’t buy their brand.sucks domain could find it in the hands of those wanting to say mean things about them. The price was described as “predatory,” and critics were saying the seller was “trying to shake down large companies.”

Vox Populi, however, said owning a .sucks domain was for the greater good of society. Their CEO John Berard was quoted as saying:

“If we’re successful in making .sucks a recognized location on the internet, not only will it give people the opportunity to say what they want to say, but it will increase the chance that what they have to say will be heard by the people they’re saying it about.”

A promotional video on their website even features Ralph Nader and Martin Luther King Jr.

I heard Vox Populi CEO John Berard on an interview with CBC’s Day 6 radio program. The show offered a lot of criticism of the whole .sucks situation, but Berard stuck firmly to his messaging about a .sucks domain.

“It provides a clean, well-lighted place for the kind of criticism that customers want to be sure is heard and companies can leverage for improvement…My hope is that companies, institutions and governments will see the value of creating, cultivating and managing that website so as to get a handle sooner, better more meaningfully on criticisms that might be coming it way.”

And when asked about brands having to buy their .sucks domains to block and silence critics, he said:

“Our hope is that smart people inside these successful companies will see the value of launching this site and cultivating the commentary. We have set pricing for the names so as to encourage their use…The motivation for our doing this has been to establish these websites. I can only hope that our intent will be matched my market action and that there will be over time a new class of comment and criticism that emerges.

Nothing shook Berard from his key messages, and he never got upset or rose to any of the criticism. It was a great example of how to manage media situations and come out smelling if not sweet, then at least not bad, on the other side.

Now that the sunrise period has ended, anyone can buy a .sucks name for about $250 US, although the company says this fall some people can apply for subsidized sites for as little as $10/year. And yet, Vox Populi says that some “market premium” domain names (defined by the company as “names that the market over time have designated as having a high value”) are only available if you shell out $2500.

That kinda sucks, but if it blows up, I think their CEO can handle the criticism.