Social media attacks: Are you prepared?

The most nefarious use of social media is when an individual or a group intentionally sets out to destroy someone else’s reputation or business. Shell Oil is experiencing some of the worst the World Wide Web community has to offer.

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The extremist environmental group, Greenpeace International, launched a Website (Arctic Ready) and Twitter account (@Shellisprepared) with the intention to damage Shell Oil’s drilling operations in the Arctic Circle and it’s corporate reputation. The Arctic Ready site very closely resembles Shell’s Arctic Circle site visually, and significant effort has been expended to craft faux news articles on the site to make the hoax even more believable. To some extent it has succeeded. A Youtube video added to the reality, but it was professionally staged down to the rehearsals.

Shell Oil has offered little in way of response. Truth is, petroleum companies spend money by the millions, and Greenpeace is bragging that it caused Shell to unnecessarily spend thousands of dollars. It is doubtful this will get much traction beyond curious onlookers gawking at the created content (like it did me!).

However, most businesses aren’t Shell, and can’t withstand this type of attack. So, what can you do if your organization is the subject of a reasonably well-constructed social media smear campaign. Here are four ideas to help guide you.

1. Place a premium on social media monitoring

I’ve written about monitoring before (Corporate reputation does matter, sorry Joan), and in that post offered some useful tools to help make monitoring more manageable. The bottom line on monitoring is that it ought to be specifically assigned to someone (or several people if it is a larger company). Monitoring identifies social media embers smoldering on the horizon or social media flash fires shortly after they are ignited since monitoring is frequent throughout the day. If you are in an industry that lends itself to criticism, monitoring is especially a non-negotiable.

2. Know how you will respond

Responses can fall into several categories, here are three: No response, but continue monitoring; limited response in a like forum; full-scale response that is commiserate to a three-alarm fire. Each organization is different and may actually have more response categories based on crisis criteria. Without question, these scenarios ought to be accounted for in a crisis communications plan and people ought to know who does what and how. (Read Social media, crises and who, parts 1 and 2 for help identifying what roles need to be defined.)

3. Be media ready

You should always be prepared for the social media activity to escalate. Hopefully it will die down, but if it doesn’t, it will probably draw the attention of local or national news, depending on the company involved or the industry. Are your speaking points ready and are your spokespeople prepared? Escalating to mainstream media has its benefits, but only if your organization takes advantage of the opportunity. Being prepared to speak clearly and authoritatively is critical and reinforces the social media initiative you’ve been pressing. Remember, What you say impacts branding.

4. Consider legal action

Obviously, the decision to take legal action moves beyond the role of an organizational communicator but it is certainly a branding issue and communications will be involved. In Shell’s situation there very well could be a legitimate trademark infringement violation since there is no stated indication Greenpeace’s site is a parody. If legal action is imminent, does everyone know what the organization will communicate, who will communicate it and how social media will be used in the communications strategy? (Oh, and don’t forget to guide employees with understanding what can and can’t be communicated through their social media channels).

It is quiet possible to come through a social media attack like Shell is experiencing but not without forethought. The key is to get beyond being reactive. Preparation limits reactiveness and is the key to strength.

(For more information on the challenge Shell faces, you can read these two well done posts: How Greenpeace Manipulated the media like a pro, and Shell Oil’s social media nightmare continues).


I write...a lot, and use social and traditional media strategies to help people and organizations communicate better.

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