Anatomy of a social media disaster

Two recent campaigns by Australian organisations have caused a debate over trust in social media campaigns.

Tourism Queensland (TQ) recently launched a campaign with a difference; instead of attracting people to the “Sunshine State” via a traditional website, TQ created a site that advertised the “Best Job in the World”. The job, The Caretaker of the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef (a brand ambassador role), was a 6 month contract paying $AUD150,000.

The earliest public response to this campaign was very positive. The social media sphere lit up with discussions about the campaign, heritage media covered the campaign, and the website itself, crashed after being overwhelmed with visitors from Australia and overseas.

A job applicant, “Tegan”, posted a video YouTube that demonstrated her passion for the job, going so far as to get a tattoo of Queensland on her shoulder. She also started a blog to demonstrate her passion, linked to a PayPal account in an effort to raise money to fund her job application. Another boost in coverage for the campaign. What followed has cast an enormous shadow over the entire campaign.

It has since been discovered by Marketing and Digital Media Blog Mumbrella that “Tegan” was in fact an employee of the advertising agency behind the campaign, and that she was asked to act “like a Big-Brother video application”.

“I thought it would be so obvious that it was fake, but I guess some people still fell for it including the lazy journalists who had nothing better to write about” said “Tegan”, also known as Cummins Nitro employee Rhiannon Craig.

Since then, another Australian campaign has been outed as a fake. It’s the story of “Heidi Clarke”, a girl who met a guy in a cafe, made some small talk and went their separate ways. He left his jacket behind, so “Heidi Clarke” created a YouTube video where she claimed “love at first sight”, and wanted to return a jacket he left at the cafe. The Australian media wanted to know – where was this man?

The “Today Show” had “Heidi Clarke” on as a guest. Smelling a fake, they asked her to look down the barrel of the camera and vow that it was genuine. She confirmed on national TV that it was. Since then, again, “Heide Clarke” has been outed as a fake, a woman hired by Naked Communications to promote a range of clothing for a major Australian retailer.

These examples of dishonest communications practices have brought to the fore the “Honesty ROI”, the code of conduct developed by the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

The “Honesty ROI” has three key pillars: Honesty of Relationship, Honesty of Opinion and Honesty of Identity.

Honesty of Relationship:
Don’t shill (get your friends to represent you)
Don’t go undercover
Comply with cultural norms and regulations

Most pertinent to these cases,

“When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.”

Honesty of Opinion:
Your opinion is your opinion;
Feel free to share it, but please:
Provide facts / links / proof points
Don’t misrepresent

Honesty of Identity
Kids can play dress up and have make believe friends; we can’t
Please practice full disclosure

Again, relevance to these cases are best described by the guideline:

“Campaign organizers should monitor and enforce disclosure of identity. Manner of disclosure can be flexible, based on the context of the communication. Explicit disclosure is not required for an obviously fictional character, but would be required for an artificial identity or corporate representative that could be mistaken for an average consumer”.

The organisations behind these campaigns (and the broader Australian marketing and communications industry) cannot be lulled into the false economy of measuring column inches and hits as the ultimate measure of campaign success. As I would say in this such campaign measurement, H.I.T.S. are How Idiots Track Success.

Tourism Queensland CEO Anthony Hayes has since admitted: “The simple answer is that we messed up”. PR isn’t about column inches, it’s about authenticity, trust and believable, honest communications across integrated channels. TQ may have won the column inches battle, but they lost the trust war; that’s what counts. Now, people aren’t sure whether any element of the campaign was real, or whether it was all an elaborate hoax, whether any of the positive claims made by TQ are believable. The public had their awareness raised, and their trust shattered. I think it’s a real shame for TQ. As for the Naked Communications campaign for the undisclosed Australian retailer, there has been no upside.

A lesson in honesty, opinion and identity – hopefully just growing pains for a burgeoning Australian digital media industry, not the sign of things to come.