New Media Meets Old Politics

In 1997, the planned Parenthood Federation of America received a grant of millions of dollars from an anonymous donor to put up a Web site and maintain it for three years.

One of Planned Parenthood’s missions is to provide counseling and health care services, including contraception and abortion, while respecting the privacy of its clients. The idea was for the Web site, dubbed TeenWire, to provide teenagers with an anonymous resource for reliable information about sexual health; a source they could access without having to rely on rides from parents or anyone else. A Web site was the perfect solution – but the volatile politics of abortion meant that this was no ordinary project.

The account was large enough to attract national talent, and Planned Parenthood’s selection process was rigorous. When the nonprofit began requesting proposals from Web shops in January 1998, respondents included, Atomic Vision, Oven Digital, Studio Archetype and Think New Ideas. The field was narrowed to a handful of competitors. In the end, Atomic Vision, a Web development company based in San Francisco, was awarded the project. The company has since completed the site, which will go live in late February.

“One of the first questions Planned Parenthood asked each finalist was ‘How will it affect your business when your other clients find out you’re working with Planned Parenthood?'” recalls Janice Crotty, an independent contractor who advised Planned Parenthood during the selection process. “Atomic Vision’s immediate response was ‘We wouldn’t do business with anyone who was bothered by it.'” New York-based Think New Ideas took Planned Parenthood’s question to heart and withdrew its bid.

“There was a vague concern that Planned Parenthood might present a problem with other clients down the line,” says one source from Think New Ideas. “It was a significant account, but they were nervous about possible controversy.”

Many people in the Net business like to think of the industry as being post-politics, immune from conventional pieties. That illusion is gradually being dismantled. Think New Ideas is only one of a handful of I-Builders that’s publicly held. Scott Mednick, who was CEO of the company when it withdrew, and who’s now CEO of L.A.-based X-Ceed, says that being a public company makes all the difference when considering a client like Planned Parenthood.

“We couldn’t take the chance that it would alienate our investors or some client,” says Mednick. “Whether we agreed or disagreed with Planned Parenthood had nothing to do with it.”

It was a difficult decision made late in the process. Think New Ideas realized that some of the organization’s work involves the most controversial issue in modern American life. Among all the hot buttons out there – immigration, drugs, even gun control – confidential access to contraception and abortion is one of the most divisive.

However, Mednick’s dilemma indicates the end of the heady days when Internet executives could say they were above the politics of compromise. Early Web developers thought they were creating a medium in which the old rules wouldn’t apply. But if they want to court Fortune 500 companies, I-Builders will be forced to do business with the ideological sensitivities of decades-old conglomerates.

Political consultants on the Web have faced this music for some time. “As an Internet services company, it would be difficult, for example, to work for both a Democratic and a Republican candidate,” says Robert Arena, senior VP of Internet services for Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions, a Virginia-based company that runs online political campaigns. I-Builders will only become more cautious as they grow. “Most of us are becoming very large companies with very large clienteles,” says Mednick. “You have to put other things before your personal beliefs.”

“Whether or not a CEO believes in UFOs shouldn’t be an issue,” Mednick continues, referring to the recent resignation of USWeb (dossier) CEO Joe Firmage. “But you have to worry about what the shareholders think.” As the Internet Economy matures, companies will have to dance, as most businesses do, around political controversy.

“As a public company, we have a threefold responsibility: to our clients, our investors and ourselves,” says Ron Bloom, the current CEO of Think New Ideas and a founder of the company. “When a situation has a political nuance to it, we have to analyze that.” The CEO of General Motors (GM) couldn’t have said it better.