Bottom Line: Do you remember the days when multinationals could steadily control their PR agendas? Big Tobacco was able to portray smoking as suave and sophisticated, not to mention the leisure choice of doctors, for years, until their opponents' message of addiction and death finally took hold. Contrast that with today, where corporate PR campaigns can be thoroughly routed and turned against the companies almost the instant they begin – if not before. What happened? You guessed it. Social media – and activists who REALLY know how to use it.
CASES IN POINT
It's no secret that the oil industry, particularly in the oil sands, has been living in PR hell. Greenhouse gas emissions. Oil spills. Pipeline leaks. Tailings ponds and tar-soaked ducks. These were the stories of oil, with little else being said. Not surprisingly, the industry finally decided they had better step up to the mike.
Disseminated through their industry association, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, as well as individually, image ads began to appear to highlight the industry's "good news" stories, such as its contributions to essential energy supplies and the economy, new reclamation technologies and biofuel and natural gas initiatives.
But this wasn't going to be a walk in the park. Let's look at some counter-campaigns these companies have been hit with.
a. Shell's 2012 "Let's Go" campaign
Shell began a campaign in the summer of 2012 called "Let's Go." Its focus was, among other things, on the importance of energy for the future and the company's development of ethanol and natural gas. (e.g., "Let's broaden the world's energy mix. Let's go.")
The activist group, the Yes Men (www.theyesmen.org), however, had other ideas as to what Shell-related news should take centre stage that summer. They preferred to focus on the new drilling Shell was about to commence in the Arctic.
Spoofs that don't look like spoofs – and get way more attention than the real thing
As soon as Shell's "Let's Go" campaign began, it was swiftly overshadowed (on June 7) by hoopla over a video on YouTube that appeared to be shot by a guest at a party held by Shell to celebrate the launch of the northern rigs. The smartphone video shows guests watching the first ceremonial drink to be poured from a fountain shaped like an oil derrick. As an elderly lady holds her glass out for filling, however, a malfunction occurs, with black liquid spurting out instead, spraying her as she squeals in shock. Someone says, "I can't turn it off!", presumably meant to conjure thoughts of oil spills. The video was a viral sensation, as it appeared to be a legitimate embarrassment for the company. Even traditional media picked it up until, ultimately, it was admitted to be a spoof produced by Greenpeace and the Yes Men.
How many had watched Shell's official "Let's Go" video by early July? Reportedly, about 3,200. How many watched the fake video the first day it was online? About half a million. (Taking it further, when Shell eventually disavowed the video, Greenpeace also issued a fake press release indicating that Shell was going to take legal action against Greenpeace, all the more to endear the company to youngsters who don't take kindly to big corporations squishing freedom of speech.
But that wasn't all. A fake Shell Facebook page and Twitter account were set up, along with a website, ArticReady.com, looking extremely similar to the legitimate Shell in the Arctic website and headed "Let's Go! Shell in the Arctic." Complete with Shell's logo, it talks about hundreds of thousands of people who perish in climate change annually, among other "incredibly dire consequences" to be expected. The webpage then says, "That's why we at Shell are committed to not only recognize the challenges that climate change brings, but to take advantage of its tremendous opportunities. And what's the biggest opportunity we've got today? The melting Arctic." It even has a section just for kids with a game called "Angry Bergs."
"Let's Go" ads to bolster Shell's campaign, prepared courtesy of the Yes Men, show, for example (see ad below), a polar bear swimming in polar waters with copy reading:
IN ORDER TO SURVIVE, WE ALL HAVE TO PUSH OUR LIMITS. LET'S
With Arctic ice dwindling away, polar bears today can swim hundreds of miles in search of food. We're betting they can go even further. And so can we. At Shell, we're also going the distance to provide for the future, betting on precious resources formerly trapped beneath an impenetrable layer of ice, now freed for the good of humanity. Polar bears were made to swim, and Shell was made to power our way of life. We can all go further.
Another one shows a little boy coming hand-to-paw with a gentle polar bear, with copying reading:
HARD CHOICES – WE'RE MAKING THEM . LET'S GO.
In the high-stakes hunt for natural resources we are bringing humanity closer than ever to nature's most vulnerable inhabitants. But high-stakes also bring high risk. At Shell, we are balancing our needs to power our way of life with our responsibility to the planet, working harder than ever to minimize the damage when disaster strikes, so even if we lose some of our friends up north we don't lose them all. Thinking ahead makes all the difference.
But why should the Yes Men have all the fun? The website invited consumers to get creative too, providing Shell's "Let's Go" design elements to help them make their own ads and enter an Ad Contest. This again began to catch on with the enthusiasm one could only dream about for a legitimate campaign. Triplepundict.com reported on July 25, 2012 that over 12,000 people participated, the winning entry being a picture of a little polar bear cub snuggling into his mother with the slogan, "You can't run your SUV on 'cute.' Let's go."
Notching the ruse up further, after the spoof contest launched, Greenpeace and its cohorts created a purported Shell "social media response team" Twitter account to make ads generated by their spoof website REALLY go viral. How did it do that? As reported on forbes.com on July 18, 2012, by pretending to be desperately trying to limit the dissemination of ads created on the fake site. "Our team is working overtime to remove inappropriate ads. Please stop sharing them," came the repeated tweets from the phony @ShellIsPrepared account. Well. What could be a more irresistible invitation to re-tweet than that?
DIDN'T SHELL SUE?
It was reported by Huffington Post Canada on July 16, 2012 that Shell had elected not to pursue legal action. Why not? It said, "Our focus is on safely executing our operations." This is not to say you shouldn't be looking at legal action. Companies are taking that step carefully these days, however, considering the PR implications as well as the legal ones.
b. Chevron – "We Agree" Campaign
This wasn't the first time the Yes Men had struck oil. Going back to 2010, Chevron launched a campaign focusing on its investments in local communities and research into alternative energy. It was called "We Agree." Ad executions included, "We need to start building again. I agree", "Shale gas should be good for everyone. I agree", "The world needs more than oil. I agree", etc.
Before Chevron could even blink, however, its "We Agree" campaign was hijacked by a strikingly similar, but fake campaign. The ads here were, "Oil companies should clean up their messes. We agree.", "Oil companies should fix the problems they create. We agree.", etc. (See below.)
The ads were supplemented by a fake press release, the spoof headline being, "Radical Chevron Ad Campaign Highlights Victims," and the real one being, "Chevron Launches New Global Advertising Campaign: 'We Agree.'"
HOW DOES THIS EVEN HAPPEN?
The timing here was pretty stunning, as Chevron's campaign hadn't even got out of the gate. As it happened, Lady Luck shone twice on the Yes Men as there were TWO freak leaks. Chevron had apparently been looking for environmentalist bloggers to appear in one of the campaign's commercials. When such a blogger was invited in for a casting call, she accepted the invite to learn what the advertising would entail. She decided not to appear, but to instead pass the intelligence on to Amazon Watch, the Rainforest Action Network and the Yes Men.
The activists got even luckier, though. A particular street artist had been asked if he could wheat-paste posters for Chevron's campaign. As it happened, he was a political activist. What he did instead, then, was send the files for the ads to the Rainforest Action Network. One can only imagine the ecstasy in their faces when they got their hands on actual creative for the planned campaign. Rainforest Action Network, of course, got busy making its own ads so the public would have difficulty telling which were real and which were bogus. The incredible backstory is recounted in all its glory in a YouTube video made by said street artist.
COULD IT GET MORE OUTRAGEOUS THAN THAT?
c. "Shell: We are sorry"
Yes, it can get more outrageous than that. On March 28, 2010, a YouTube video premiered titled, "Shell: We are sorry".
It featured a fake Vice-President of the Ethical Affairs Committee at Royal Dutch Shell, giving a fake press conference. In a four-minute speech, he uncomfortably apologized to the people of the Niger Delta on behalf of the company for environmental havoc wreaked on their land, water, and communities. The spokesman promised that in a new spirit of goodwill and corporate transparency, changes were ahead and the company would be extensively reviewing its operations and fully disclosing its problems and abuses. You really just have to see it to believe it which, if you're looking at the e-version of this Update (you can sign up for e-Updates at www.MarketingLawUpdate.ca), you can do here.
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE YOU?
Presumably sobered and forewarned. At the end of the day, a few things are becoming clear. First, concern about environmental issues may go up and down in the public's relative hit list, but most consumers do think the issues are serious, they're worried about their kids' future and they're not in the mood to have that concern abused. That's amplified by the second factor, which is that public skepticism is painfully high when it comes to corporate credibility, having been routed by the tobacco industry, Enron, Wall Street and numerous other disheartening events. That gives rise to the third principle, which is both the logical extension of the foregoing and the key to the way out: Honesty and humility are the new "black." Lee Iacocca, Tylenol, McDonalds setting up a website with Q&As about its food (is it real or what?).... It's been coming in fits and starts, but both brown AND "greener" industries are going to have to feel their way down this new path of openness and transparency, looking for just the right balance in this newly evolving world.
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