About a month ago, Greenpeace admitted to creating a fake Shell website, ArcticReady.com, which closely matches Shell’s real site, to educate the public about Shell’s drilling operations in the north. A portion of the site was dedicated to an “ad generator” where visitors could add captions to photos that were supposedly provided by Shell.
Several groups including Greenpeace, YesLab and individuals involved in the Occupy movement then used social media to draw attention to a Shell campaign that had supposedly gone terribly wrong.
Using the ad generator, users created a series of fake Shell ads supposedly promoting drilling the arctic . Headlines included “Narwhals are the unicorns of the ocean. We provide the rainbows via oil slicks. Let’s go.” and “We’d drill a crippled orphan’s spine if there was some oil in it. Let’s go.”
Greenpeace and YesLab also created a fake Shell PR Twitter account (@ShellsPrepared) to “address the issue.” The Twitter account tweeted requests to stop sharing the ads and stated that the company was supposedly a bit embarrassed by the debacle. Of course no one likes to be told what to do, so the response was exactly what Greenpeace wanted – the ads continued to spread and bringing even more attention to the issue.
The Greenpeace and YesLab campaign also included the development of a video that shows a mangled corporate PR event and a fake press release.
This is just one example of how quickly a reputation can be damaged within social media. For example, Greenpeace and YesLab have realized they can make a much bigger splash in the social media space and garner far more attention than organizing protests or hand cuffing themselves to an oil rig. For groups with meager budgets, stunts like these can almost instantaneously spread online like wildfire.
Shell isn’t the only company who has been targeted this way. Last May, YesLab created another sophisticated hoax website, www.coalcares.org, which was designed to look as though it was created by Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world. The site claimed the company was giving away child-themed inhalers for kids with asthma. Several members of the media picked up the story and reported the site was created by Peabody.
While each situation will have to be addressed individually, having a crisis response plan in place for a reaction to an online viral smear campaign is vital. Below are a few tips on how to respond in an online crisis situation such as the ones Shell and Peabody Energy have experienced.
- Create and use a “dark” crisis response microsite. You could answer questions through a blog, a forum or other social media platform. You could also post videos highlighting your company’s involvement in the community and include information on your company’s commitment to ethical business practices and sustainability. It would be helpful to have the site developed in advance by using infrastructure already present on your current website, so it’s ready to go live whenever a crisis hits.
- Monitor the social conversation. Consider using tools that allow companies to follow social conversations about specific brand names and keyword searches. This will help you respond more quickly as well as keep a close tab on what’s being shared when and by whom.
- Respond via social media. Engage people in conversations on social media platforms. Make sure your company has a Twitter account and engage in the spaces the critics are dominating. It’s also important to consider developing a pre-approved social media policy to make sure everyone understands how to use social media tools appropriately in advance of a crisis.
- Leverage existing online support. Encourage your supporters to post messages debunking the hoax site and ask them to direct people to the company’s true microsite and official Twitter account for accurate information.
What about you? Are you prepared to respond to a viral threat to your organization’s reputation? Do you have other tips to add?