Craigslist is an internet icon, and it’s a unique one. Despite the
rapid evolution of the internet over the past decade, Craigslist in
2010 still looks like Craigslist in 2000. The fact that Craigslist has
managed to thrive largely its original form is a testament to the value
it offers.

But Craigslist is under assault. And it’s not competitors who are
attacking. It’s politicians and the media. The reason: adult service
ads which many say are frequently used in the illegal trafficking of
women and children. And which many argue Craigslist continues to allow
because they’re a lucrative source of revenue.

The controversy over these ads isn’t new, but it isn’t going away. Despite Craigslist’s attempts to appease lawmakers and law enforcement, public officials continue to lambast Craigslist. Some are even suggesting that laws designed to limit the liability of internet service providers for content posted by third parties be revised. Such revisions could threaten Craigslist’s business model.

Politicians, of course, love to stir the pot, but perhaps much more worryingly for Craigslist, the company seems to be getting less love from the media lately too.

Case in point: Amber Lyon, a reporter at CNN, recently surprised (or ambushed depending on your point of view) Craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark, as part of a story on the trafficking of women and children. Newmark spoke with her and arguably came off looking a bit aloof. The interview sparked an angry response from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster. Newmark himself responded to the interview last week. His defense: my personality makes me an easy target for a reporter looking to craft a story, and everyone knows I’m a good guy. He wrote:

…Amber, CNN, and others are depicting Jim and I as profiteers oblivious to the welfare of women and children. Anyone that’s followed us over all these years knows that’s not at all what we’re about. In reality, we’re both pretty obsessed with trying to make the world a better place, and neither have much interest in possessions or fancy lifestyles. Me, I’ll stick to my causes, like doing right by our veterans, keeping the faith on net neutrality, and working toward better governance…

So are the complaints about Craigslist’s position vis-à-vis adult services ads fair? People on both sides of the debate have their arguments, and I’m not going to jump into the fray. But I would suggest from a PR perspective that when the face of any company is forced to declare “I’m a good guy who is trying to make the world better” and cite his or her good works in response to a matter that calls into question a company’s values, it should serve as a wakeup call.

Craigslist may be low-key, but it has a high-profile brand. And despite the apparent staying power of Craigslist’s popularity with consumers, every brand is vulnerable. Here, regardless of whether one believes Craigslist is right or wrong, Craigslist increasingly finds that a lot of the buzz around its brand deals with an inherently negative and visceral subject: the exploitation of women and children. That’s not good. Clearly, the company’s previous attempts to address concerns over adult services ads haven’t been effective, and the situation has arguably gotten worse. And it will likely get worse unless Craigslist ditches its down-to-earth corporate persona and realizes that it’s in the PR fight of its life.