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Deepwater Horizon Spill: Managing the Hoaxes

May 28, 2010

This is another in my Deepwater Horizon Spill series.

There has been a unique phenomenon associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response; one that I’ve never heard of before. I suppose though, given the increasingly media-savvy world we live in, and the democratization of publishing channels, this is something we should have been expecting.


I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but it seems to fit where I’m heading so I’ll run with it.

When I say hoaxes,  I mean someone is pretending to be an official voice when they’re not actually. Now, this is something that’s come up before in trainings and plan development before (you need to be the first commenter on the situation so people know that you’re the official mouthpiece of the response), but I always assumed that we did that so that other people, or agencies, wouldn’t be seen as an official part of the response. And sure, some of the real anti-terrorist folks always ended their inevitable, “But what about if,” statements by having Al-Qaida posting rogue false news reports telling people that it’s safe to go back to their homes.

Now, though, in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, I’ve seen another reason to get in front of the story. Political statements. And sure, there are always political statements made during disasters — I even remember some of the eco-warriors stepping up their game after Exxon Valdez. But that was different than this. That was eco-warriors saying they were eco-warriors and they told you so and you didn’t listen.

This is different, though. This is faceless individuals (organizations?) saying that they’re major petroleum conglomerates and this is how they’re responding to the disaster.

I’m being obtuse, so let me give an example.

On May 17, millions of people around the world got a press release saying that Shell Energy was engaging in a massive remediation effort to clean up the Niger delta, where Shell conducts large energy products. In the hours after the release, all of those people thought about what a great gesture it was, especially in light of what was happening in the Gulf. Problem is that it wasn’t real. The release was published by a Nigerian activist group. Shell was forced to confirm the release was not theirs and that they would not be conducting remediation in the Niger delta. The BulletProof Blog has the whole story here, and the fake press release can be found here.

Now imagine if that group was attempting to knock around some stock prices by announcing some costly new program. It will probably take less than an hour to issue retractions, but think of the panicked selling that would occur.

And there’s more. As the Deepwater Horizon response has stretched out, someone has been posting to a parody Twitter account called BPGlobalPR. For a few days, the account even sported the official BP logo, though this has since been changed. The posts on this account can be, well, juvenile, but they seem to be aimed at skewering the BP response. In this article in AdAge, it seems BP has reserved themselves to just letting the account be, though one wonders how long they can stand a BP-branded entity to continually stick skewers in their side.

Now, for all of my PIOs that stop by, consider your situation. I’m sure you’ve got someone somewhere that doesn’t like what you do. They’ve got a grudge, an axe to grind, and take perverse pleasure in making sure their negative quote gets in the paper to “counter-balance” yours. Now, what if they started a Twitter account that used your logo, and spoke in an official tone, and responded to a situation in your jurisdiction first? Imagine the damage they could do. They could destroy your credibility, before you even know the disaster is happening.

My worst case scenario? A Twitter account that looks and sounds official that says something like, “We’re aware of the ongoing situation, but have chosen to delay response until some time in the future.” Think of the liabilities opened up with just that one sentence. Think of the loss of faith in your response. Think of what your Mayor or Governor will have to go in front of the press and say to respond to the postings. What if they gave information that encouraged people to move into harm’s way — and they did.

The mind boggles. How would you deal with this?

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