The latest round of media hoaxsters

We’ve had a couple of notable public relations pranks in the past month, playing heavily off phony Twitter accounts that were used to lampoon some stodgy situations. Expect more as media hoaxsters start sharpening their tools and coordinating their satirical repertoire.

The two phony Twitter accounts, @ATT_Wireless_PR and @BPglobalPR, were created in mid June and early May in response to the iPhone v4 problems and the Gulf oil spill respectively. The BR account has gotten more than 180,000 followers and been featured on numerous blogs and news reports, and its owner even has this post that gives his (or her) rationale.

Wired and Cnet both tried to reveal the “real” person behind the account, who goes by the name Leroy Stick, but actually fingered the wrong person. So much for good journalist practice. Stick also sells fake BP t-shirts (with an oil leak-modified BP logo), the proceeds of which he claims to have donated to a charity. Or so he says. One of my favorite posts from the AT&T account is this message:

Deny, deny, patronize, condescend. Classic! Steve Jobs – you had us at hello

Certainly, these phony PR accounts wouldn’t have gotten any traction had BP (and to some extent Apple and AT&T) owned up to their problems early on and not immediately shifted into denial mode. But they are amusing to read, if slightly NSFW.

Twitter really helps these sorts of pranks. One of my favorite old-time media hoaxster is Joey Skaggs, who has made a quirky but continuous living poking fun of the media and how easy it is to gain their trust, even on the most foolish of premises. Skaggs has been behind a virtual reality sex product, a Korean company buying wayward dogs from animal shelters for food, and a computerized legal arbiter, just to name a few of his projects. Skaggs in disguise has been interviewed on CNN and major TV networks as his self-purported “expert” only to come clean weeks later and reveal the gag. You can see his blog at artoftheprank.com where he posts some of the more notable media pranks of others.

He told me:

“Social networking has evolved to where it is now easy for everyone to be a prankster and make social commentary. People get a laugh and it’s pretty harmless. And yes, I think we’ll see more and more of this as it’s so simple to do. No risk, very little challenge and, although amusing, not much in the way of provocation or new ideas.”

Besides Skaggs, another of the more notable media pranksters is ImprovEverywhere, a NYC-based acting troupe that stages all sorts of oddball events. Their latest was a command performance at the main New York Public Library Rose Reading room a few weeks ago. The library asked IE to play off one scene from the movie Ghostbusters and came with actors dressed both as the stars in the film and ghosts. Of course, part of their work is to document the pranks with video and they are very amusing. In the past, IE has taken over Best Buy stores with actors dressed in blue polo shirts posing as store customer service clerks, a special “tourists only” walking lane on New York City sidewalks and precisely choreographed meet ups. You can see more on their blog here: improveverywhere.com

So what can we learn from all this tomfoolery? Branding is now completely crowd-sourced. Any attempt to control the message is so last year. Get on board this cluetrain before it departs the station for good, as BP found out.

While anonymous tweets are powerful, they can be used for both good and evil purposes. And while Twitter has done some policing of fake accounts that are harmful, don’t expect them to intercede on your behalf when satire is involved.

Finally, satire is still alive and well in the new medium of social media. But it also getting more difficult to separate truth from fiction. And while the BP and AT&T tweets are amusing, they can get in the way of finding out what is really going on with both companies.

You can listen to a podcast that Paul Gillin and I have recorded on this topic over on MediaBlather.com when we post it next week.

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