Most oil companies are having a tough go of it these days in the court of public opinion. Of course, none of that is affecting their revenues, as the largest oil producers are continuously amongst the biggest earning corporations in the world. But they often face a slew of PR nightmares due to environmental dangers, damaging and sometimes deadly accidents, and public outcry at new drilling practices. Shell Oil specifically has been under siege for the past few months, as a group of online pranksters called @ShellIsPrepared created a social media frenzy that the oil behemoth is still battling.
Back in May a new website popped up on the internet called “Arctic Ready”. It was plastered with Shell Oil branding, and promoted itself as a resource for the public to educate themselves on the realities of Shell’s drilling practices in the North. Visitors were encouraged to use their ad generator to create captions for a series of photos provided by Shell, giving the site a social media component that helped it spread far and wide. The site passed the sniff test, as it clearly resembled the section of Shell’s website focused on their Arctic activities. But the site was actually an elaborate hoax designed and executed by environmental activist organizations the Yes Men and Greenpeace. The fact that it has been revealed as a forgery hasn’t stopped the site from receiving tons of visitors, nor has the site been taken down by Shell Oil.
In June, the Yes Men and Greenpeace, supported by several organizers from the Occupy movement, created an additional viral phenomenon. They posted a video on YouTube of a Shell disaster. The whole event was staged, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from sharing it far and wide on the internet. They’re pulling the entire effort together on Twitter, through an account supposedly launched by Shell’s social media response team. And while the tone is designed to come across as Shell’s PR department working endlessly to remove the fake ads created on the Arctic Ready site, it is actually helping all of those ads spread virally.
The @ShellIsPrepared Twitter account continues to share the ads, while asking people to stop sharing them. The plot is actually working better than any of the groups could have anticipated. People started retweeting their pleas under the presumption that this was a Shell account, and an example of a hilarious utter PR disaster. Journalists responded mockingly, suggesting Shell’s social media team would soon be looking for work.
The result is the various organizations realizing the true potential of social media. Greenpeace has been battling environmentally damaging corporations for years, but have made little impact while putting their people in physical danger. But the effectiveness of this multi-leveled prank is showing them that the information age is making a whole new level of protest possible. The actual Shell PR department has been slow to contain the situation. They’re probably concerned that people won’t be able to separate their real social media presence from the protesters’ ploy. Instead, they released a lackluster public statement, announcing that they’re basically going to completely ignore it. Some experts feel that Shell has a legitimate legal gripe they could raise, given the trademark law implications, but the laws governing social commentary through art make it a much more complicated situation.