In 2008, a senior executive for Burger King took an unusual (and ultimately disastrous) tack during a 2008 labor dispute with union leaders over the farm workers who were picking vegetables for the chain. In addition to whatever public statements the company made, this executive started posting disparaging online comments about labor leaders and their practices—using his daughter's screen name.
The idea must have seemed so clever, so ... safe. Who would ever find out?
Now, it's highly unlikely that this executive would have ever dreamed of a similarly phony campaign on paper via traditional media. Imagine giving a false name to a reporter, or trying to pose as someone you're not—while appearing in a television news interview.
Yet the Internet sometimes encourages an anything-goes dynamic. Check out a journalistic website and the comments beneath any random news item. You'll see how quickly people abandon personal rules of civility, decorum, and restraint when they think they're invisible. Words fly from their fingers that would never cross their lips at a neighborhood barbecue.
Amid the profusion of verbal missiles fired under the alias of someone's pet schnauzer or favorite Star Wars character, the Burger King executive may not have even considered his ploy unethical. The Internet feels like driving, but it is really walking. We motor along in the cocoon of our cars, occasionally feeling frustrated enough to treat others with disdain. By contrast, imagine tailgating or yelling (the equivalent of honking) at a slow walker. It would embarrass and possibly put us in harm's way.
Burger King paid a high price for its lesson in digital circumspection. Inevitably, some computer experts traced the comments back to the executive, and a Florida newspaper broke the story. The executive was fired, and Burger King's CEO made a public apology for this incident, which endangered the company's brand simply by making the company look devious and petty.
Burger King is by no means the only corporate ship to have scraped its hull on the shoals of the blogosphere. On his "Web Strategy" blog, www.businessinsider.com, social media expert Jeremiah Owyang keeps a running list of "Brands that Got Punk'd by Social Media." The list includes some of the most recognizable names in corporate America. While most companies stumble their way onto the list through honest goofs rather than devious schemes, virtually every case starts with somebody underestimating the power and the seriousness of the social media.
We cannot say this emphatically enough: do not play around on the Internet. Always use your own name and title and treat every missive, however casual, as though you were writing for posterity, and for the close scrutiny of friend and foe alike. Executives who anonymously goad an adversary or, conversely, plant false testimonials on their own behalf risk creating problems far greater than whatever issue prompted their participation in the first place. Memorize four simple words from Richard Jalichandra, the CEO of Technorati and today's most important authority on blogs: "You will be discovered."
Jalichandra faced a similar temptation of his own shortly after joining the company in October 2007. An influential technology writer began using his own blog to sharply criticize Jalichandra, implying that he never should have become CEO.
"We'd never met before, he didn't know me, and he absolutely flamed me," Jalichandra recalls. Within a short while, blog responders started piling on. It was open season on Richard Jalichandra, and his seat at Technorati was barely warm!
Naturally enough, Jalichandra was tempted to salve his ego by sending that blog a few choice insults of his own under an assumed name. Had he chosen that course, he might have joined the Burger King executive in search of a new job. Instead, he played it straight, posting a response under his own name and title. "I said, 'I actually have a pretty good track record. Why don't you give me six months before you throw me in the garbage can?' The stream of comments after that were 70-80 percent in my favor," he recalls. The general tenor was now, give the guy a chance.
"When you actually engage them, people are like, 'Wow, you're brave enough to step into this?—I'll at least give you one chance and listen to you.'"
Even the blogger was conciliatory and eventually became a friendly acquaintance after realizing Jalichandra was open to discuss breaking stories (and did so several times thereafter). "On one of our first conversations, he said, 'it's a good thing you didn't try to do that anonymously.'"
As Jalichandra adds, "Trust me, they'll figure it out."
This article is excerpted from the new book The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, by Richard S, Levick, Esq. and Charles Slack. For a copy, please visit this page.
Mr. Levick is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis, litigation and public affairs communications firm. He was honored in two consecutive years (2009-2010) on the prestigious list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom" by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Mr. Levick is also the co-author of Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference and writes for Bulletproofblog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.