Where do brands draw the line when it comes to stealthy self-promotion tactics? This question crossed my mind after reading about Chipotle’s recent social media hoax. The company posted a series of scripted tweets, which were made to appear like the account had been hacked. Here is a small sampling of them:





Any brand undergoing this sort of “attack” would kick their crisis communications plan into full gear and determine how to best manage the situation. But alas, according to Chipotle, it was just a stunt to promote “Adventurrito,” a 20-day long treasure hunt to help celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Chipotle did admit to Mashable that they planned the tweets and were not hacked:

“We thought that people would pay attention, that it would cut through people’s attention and make them talk, and it did that,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle representative, told Mashable in an interview. “It was definitely thought out: we didn’t want it to be harmful or hateful or controversial.”

After gaining national attention for the prank, what were the results and at what cost? In Chipotle’s case, it doesn’t seem like the stunt hurt their brand, although I’m sure it confused a lot of their followers. How many fans actually knew about their Adventurrito promotion? In the end, Chipotle gained more than 4,000 new followers on Twitter the day of the “hack” and we can guess that the incident probably didn’t stop burrito lovers from fulfilling their “burrito fix.”

But, the roots of the company are trust and honesty. The company prides itself in serving “food with integrity” which they define as “their commitment to finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers.” Did this recent move break some of the trust that they’ve worked so hard to establish with customers?

It happened in our own backyard…well technically the Nasher’s

On a different scale, the Dallas community recently witnessed a social media scam that’s the latest twist in an ongoing saga plaguing the downtown Dallas Arts District. Completed in early 2013, the 42-floor high rise building, Museum Tower, was constructed with generous amounts of reflective glass that shine a harsh glare directly onto their neighbor, the Nasher Sculpture Center. Typically this would not be a problem. Except in this case the Nasher has a roof that allows sunlight to stream through the top of the building. The glare is damaging the art collection as well as the landscaped sculpture garden causing an ongoing, very public argument between the Nasher and Museum Tower.

This leads us to the most recent development. The Dallas Morning News recently revealed that former local NBC TV anchor, Mike Synder, had been working as a consultant for the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System’s (the owners of Museum Tower) lawyers. Synder had created fake Facebook profiles to attack opponents, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, in an attempt to sway public opinion over the issue. Synder openly admitted to the charges, stepped down from his role and offered a public apology: “I allowed my passion for this topic to interfere with my good judgment,” he said.

Although it’s unclear if Museum Tower was behind Synder’s alter-ego social media profiles, Synder was found out and it didn’t end as well for him as it did for Chipotle. He is now known around the community for his unethical use of PR tactics and, in my opinion, has critically damaged his credibility.

Where do we go from here?

As a PR pro, I’m all for implementing innovative ways to tell brands’ stories. But where do ethics come into play when devising strategies? Although it may seem like the best course of action at the time, brands have to consider long term results. Short-term solutions can easily end up isolating key brand advocates, and in both examples it seems  trust was broken and credibility was hurt. In the end, the goal of engaging customers through social media is to build an open level of trust.

All that goes to say, when devising your next big scheme be sure to consider all of the outcomes, good and bad. There’s a fine line to walk, and it seems prudent to proceed with balance and caution.

Previously published on The M/C/C Minute at: www.mccom.com/blog.