The hoax perpetrated on Chevron this week offering fake ads, websites and news releases mimicking the company's new corporate advertising campaign is a sign of the times. And it is a dangerous sign.
We're not talking about clear parodies such as The Onion or "The Colbert Report," or the imposters misrepresenting themselves on calls to the "Larry King Show." Instead, what we are seeing are sophisticated and well-planned campaigns designed to confuse the media and the public. Whatever the intentions, the consequences can be very real.
Many of these campaigns are orchestrated by a group called The Yes Men, which was also behind the 2004 fake announcement about Dow Chemical and its association with the Bhopal incident, which caused the company's share price to plummet more than $2 billion after news organizations were duped into believing the announcement was real. The Yes Men, in conjunction with Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network, claimed responsibility for the Chevron hoax.
But this group doesn't have a corner on the spoof market. More recently, a fake BP Twitter account was created to "help" the company with its PR response to the Gulf spill. However, in that case it was immediately apparent this was an attempt at satire, and the host of the account quickly agreed to label it as such.
The irony here is that in this age of transparency, where companies are expected to be more open and honest with their activities, we see campaigns by social activists -- who have long called for greater accountability by public companies -- attempting to confuse the public.
As we see more examples of such spoofs, and as we see continuing examples of the media being too quick with the trigger in reporting "news" and then having to admit they were misled, one very real consequence may be a growing distrust of all institutions that deliver information.
The lesson for companies here is to be ready. The following are some steps they should take in that direction:
Anticipate. Companies should understand all the potential disruption scenarios that the web now enables. This goes beyond cyber threats and must include attempts to hijack the company's brand, as we saw in the Chevron attack.
Prepare. Companies -- particularly those companies that are involved in controversial social issues -- should have a general plan in place ahead of such an attack. And they should take steps to protect their brands from being hijacked on the web.
Monitor. Watch the radar closely to determine whether the campaign is gaining momentum, causing any confusion among key audiences, or having other consequences (impact on trading, sales, etc.).
Don't overreact. Often, such hoaxes are intended to provoke a company. Response should be measured, and in line with the actual threat to the company. Outrage alone is not a sufficient reason to react. Consider all options, but using hand grenades to down a pesky gnat is never a good strategy.
Be nimble, be quick. These campaigns can spread with lightning speed, cause news media to file erroneous reports and otherwise create havoc with audiences. Be prepared to move quickly to adjust messaging and connect with target audiences. Messaging should be designed to set the record straight and reassure audiences (including employees), and should reflect an appropriate tone (concern, not anger).
Remain focused. Companies must protect against allowing guerrila tactics such as these to disrupt their own activities. And given the Google effect, vestiges of the hoax can resurface weeks, months or even years after the event itself.
The internet provides critics with a new set of weapons in which they can pursue their campaigns against companies. Companies, in return, must understand this new landscape, and be prepared to manage it.
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Chris Gidez is senior VP-U.S. director, risk management/crisis communications and Brendan Hodgson is senior VP-digital risk management at WPP's Hill & Knowlton, which does work for Chevron but was not involved in this most recent campaign or the response.