Case studies

When parody becomes a corporate PR disaster

When does online parody cross a line?

By now you’ve probably become aware of the “fake” BP global public relations account on Twitter spewing humorous observations such as:

“We feel terrible about spilling oil in American waters, we’ll make sure the next spill happens where the terrorists live. #bpcares”

“Just wrapped up a meeting with the EPA. Terry kept farting out loud at all the right moments. Not sure how he does it, but it’s SO FUNNY!”

“Oh man, this whole time we’ve been trying to stop SEAWATER from gushing into our OIL. Stupid Terry was holding the diagram upside down.”

According to Ad Age, the account started last Wednesday afternoon with this tweet: “We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to Come.”

Fewer than 50 tweets later, the feed had nearly 13,000 followers — compared to the 5,000 or so at the “real” @BP_America — and as of today, the account had about 40,000 followers.  Its humorous blasts have been re-tweeted by everyone from filmmaker Michael Moore to singer Michelle Branch.

Toby Odone, a spokesman at BP, told Ad Age: “I’m not aware of whether BP has made any calls to have it taken down or addressed. People are entitled to their views on what we’re doing and we have to live with those. We are doing the best we can to deal with the current situation and to try to stop the oil from flowing and to then clean it up.”

While there have been plenty of fake Twitter accounts before, perhaps none has spread so rapidly or gained this kind of momentum. The timing is right, the content is superb, and people are eager to connect emotionally to anyone poking fun at the easy target.

Let’s take a look at some of the realities and implications of this development for our own businesses.

1) Is it legal?

According to Twitter’s guidelines, it is perfectly acceptable to set up accounts that parody real companies, celebrities, etc. as long as it is clear that it is a parody. Their rule states:

The bio should include a statement to distinguish it from the real identity, such as “This is a parody,” “This is a fan page,” “Parody Account,” “Fan Account” or “This is not affiliated with…”

The account should not, through private or public communication with other users, try to deceive or mislead others about your identity. For example, if operating a fan account, do not direct message other users implying you are the actual subject (i.e., person, band, sports team, etc.) of the fan account.

As of today, the fake account bio reads: “This page exists to get BP’s message and mission statement out into the twitterverse!”

So no, it is not an account that meets Twitter’s standards. Further, it is causing a lot of confusion because many people are actually taking this as a serious BP account.

2) What should BP do?

BP has much bigger PR problems than a rogue Twitter account.  And making an issue of it and spoiling the fun would probably just heighten negativity against the company.

However, if I were working for BP right now <shudder> I would at least approach Twitter and ask it to enforce its own rules and declare clearly that this is a parody site.  Given the number of people who actually think this is a real account, there is a high probability that quotes from this parody site could start showing up as legitimate quotes from the company and stress the PR department further.

Really, BP’s only real option is to withstand the public fury and and eliminate the core problem — the root cause — at the source deep in the ocean and spreading across our shores. And that is going to take years.

3) What should YOU do?

The social web has imparted a whole new sense of meaning and urgency to PR planning, monitoring and response.  How have the rules changed? Or have they? What are your thoughts?

Hilarious video, serious marketing lessons

I wanted to show you this awesome music video because it’s creative, hilarious and it also reinforces a theme I’ve been writing about over several months …

Toyota paid big bucks to produce this YouTube video. It’s not meant for TV. It’s meant for the viral web … and viral it went. Point one: The big guns are pouring on to the social web. And they will dominate.

This video is about a minivan. But it is a ton of fun.  Doesn’t it just make you forget all those annoying little Toyota brake problems? Point two: To cut through the clutter, you have to be entertaining. In fact, the pressure to be entertaining is going to intensify for all of us if we want to cut through the clutter. The actual car is secondary in this piece.  In fact, not a single product feature is even mentioned.

Point three: Small businesses are not necessarily going to be squeezed out of the social web, but the expectations for quality content are going to be high.  Get ready.

Final point: Content is king baby.  Yeah, you have to develop relationships but you get there through content. Send your kids to journalism school. Seriously. The future for writers is bright.

By the way, my buddy Ike Pigott turned me on to this little video gem. We’ve never met but we’re going to see Rush in concert together in September. Viva La Twitter.  Rock on.

What do you think about this trend?  What would you say if your ad agency came to you and suggested spending $500,000 on a two-minute video that actually makes fun of your product?  How does this build an emotional connection to mini-vans?  To Toyota?

A Twitter success story: Search leads to new market discovery

Fara Hain grabbed my attention in a big way. In a recent comment on {grow} she mentioned that Twitter had led her to discover a new market for her company’s product. REALLY? I asked her tell us more and here she goes:

To some, Twitter is surely the Paris Hilton of new media, a place popular only because of its own popularity, fascinating because it’s so clearly pointless. And I admit my initial impression of Twitter was similar. But it didn’t take too long to make me a believer because I saw first-hand how Twitter helped our company create an entirely new line of business.

While working at Gizmoz (now digime), I was pulled into the world of Twitter by two friends who were early adopters.  They encouraged me to try it out and I started by “listening” through a daily search for Gizmoz on the Twitter search box. I thought it would be interesting to see what, if anything, people were saying about us. I collated responses into a spreadsheet to see if I could find a theme or locate emerging influencers.

I found that there was a group of people using my site in a completely different way than I had expected. Gizmoz is a B2C 3D animation company which had launched a web-based tool for teens to create greetings and videos using 3D avatars. On Twitter, our tool was being discussed with hashtags like #edtech.

It turns out we were being discussed on the podium at a major education conference!  To my surprise, teachers had been using Gizmoz in the classroom as an interactive tool for students to create presentations (science classes, social studies, even a kindergarten class!). We were blown away.

By making some simple changes to our product, and asking teachers for their direct feedback, we were able to make Gizmoz more classroom-friendly. We added avatars like Albert Einstein and other historical figures and we started to be more aggressive about hiding public posts which featured less appropriate content.

In our new marketing effort, we actively targeted teachers – who are, in fact, major viral influencers – one teacher influencing 30 students is a marketer’s dream! In this example, teacher in Australia embeds a Gizmoz example in his blog post.

It’s doubtful that I would have ever discovered this amazing new market for our products without Twitter. So while the occasional, “I’m drinking coffee” tweet may be annoying, I now know there’s deep value in there if you know how to look for it.

Fara Hain tweets on Marketing and Financial Media for her company Seeking Alpha

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