As if crisis and emergency communicators don’t have enough to worry about. In today’s instant news world, without the care journalists once showed to get it right, it’s becoming increasingly common for fake spokespersons to prank the media.
Imagine the nightmare–your organization is in the middle of a major news crisis. While you are working hard to get your authorized spokesperson prepared to go live on national or regional TV, your TV monitor shows a live report going on with someone posing as a spokesperson for your organization.
Think it won’t happen?
1. Asiana Airlines accident: A “trusted source” provided Fox affiliate KTVU a list of names of pilots on the plane which crashed short of San Francisco’s airport. The names included Captain Sum Ting Wong, and Wi Tu Lo–among others. The names were read on the air by the news anchor.
2. LADWP water main break near UCLA. A fake spokesperson for the LA City water department carefully explained to the LA ABC News affiliate that the huge break was caused by someone throwing a cherry bomb into the toilet, or taking a really big dump. The live anchors were somehow not alerted by the name of the spokesperson: Louis SlungPue.
3. Napa earthquake. Blog reader Larissa sent this link to a CNN Anchor getting pranked by a fake police department PIO by the name of Adam Sure. His explanation for the cause of the quake related to Howard Stern’s backside tipped them off.
The Gawker article references other times that live news reporters got pranked by calls including posing as eye witnesses to the Malaysia Airlines crash.
This trend may have been sparked by the outrageous success of the fake BP PR twitter account that became a big hit during the 2010 oil spill. Here’s a list of the funniest lines from this fake account.
And that’s the good news. Folks like “Adam Sure” and “Louis Slung Pue” are pranking the media for the fun of it and to see if it can be done. Their intention is the challenge and the humor of it. Once they deliver their punch lines and reveal themselves, the game is up.
But, what if someone posed as an authorized spokesperson for the police or emergency management or your company with the intention of doing harm to you or the public? What if they provided plausible advice that would be dangerous? What if someone posing as a power utility spokesperson said under the circumstances given the wide-spread outage and extreme cold it is advisable for people to use their barbecues inside for heating? What if someone posing as a spokesperson for a manufacturing company with product safety concerns in the news announces incorrectly a global recall of all 10 million products and consumers should return them to their stores?
The above examples should provide enough indication that given the lack of care and editorial caution demonstrated by the media, plus their obvious gullibility, that such scenarios are not beyond the realm of possibility.
What can you do?
1. Make sure your local news outlets know you well and have a list of your authorized spokespersons. Send them this blog or the examples I provided and let them know, that while you trust they would show more caution than these examples illustrate, you want to help make sure that they don’t end up on YouTube as the next victim.
2. Include fake spokespersons and fake Twitter or Facebook pages in your list of crisis scenarios. They are secondary crisis–an often ignored category of crisis events that pile on the initial crisis. Know what you will do in advance. What will your organization do if confronted with a BPGlobalPR twitter account? Sue? Threaten legal action? Ignore? Plead with them to stop? Think it through and establish a policy and strategy so you don’t have to be chewing up precious time in the middle of a crisis trying to figure out this one. Same with fake spokespersons. Have a statement in hand ready to put on your website alerting folks to the fake announcement.
3. Add a Fact Check section on your news website–now. Don’t wait for false reports. Best practice today, I’m convinced, is to be quick to accurately correct the record when the news channels, blogs, social media or others get the facts wrong–by error or intention. However, be very careful! Don’t do like this police agency and wrongly attribute the social media report of an offensive bumper sticker on a patrol car to the person sending out the picture. Make sure you get your facts right the first time when correcting someone else’s mistake!