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I preach it over and over again. Never underestimate the power of social media. Not only can it send your organization’s message viral in a matter of hours, or even minutes, but it can also expose you just as quickly.

I say this not as a means to scare companies who are hesitant about becoming involved in the platform, but voice it to generate awareness of the positive power it can also possess [Stay tuned next week for a case study on CURE Childhood Cancer].

For now, let’s take a look at the recent viral campaign created by Greenpeace as a means to protest against Shell’s push to drill in Alaska. While I think the idea was a great one in theory, I also believe that the environmentally driven company should have thought a little more seriously about the perception it could have caused.

For those who are unaware of what I am discussing, let me give you the 140 character version: Greenpeace staged a fake launch party for Shell’s “Let’s Go! Arctic!” campaign and created a spoof video of a malfunction of a model rig.

The video received a large amount of attention from the media and within 24 hours the had over a half of a million views on YouTube, not to mention the endless amount of retweets, using the hashtag #ShellFail, from people who believed the video was filmed at a Shell private launch party.

Shortly after this video was released a website was created by Greenpeace and Yes Lab, appearing to be Shell’s own, entitled that allows people to submit tag lines for Shell advertisements. This site was staged as the social media hub for the “Let’s Go! Arctic” campaign. On the homepage it stated, “We at Shell are committed to not only recognize the challenges that climate change brings, but to take advantage of its tremendous opportunities. And what’s the biggest opportunity we’ve got today? The melting Arctic.”

Within hours people were tweeting links to these images, spreading virally about how Shell’s attempt to engage an audience had turned into a PR nightmare. The true problem? Greenpeace released a statement admitting that the entire campaign was a hoax and done in attempts to generate awareness of their global action to save the arctic.

As you can imagine, this staging did not fair well with journalists who had been tricked by the environmental activist.

Ryan Holiday, at Forbes, described it as a media manipulation and a deliberate attempt to deceive and mislead their audience stating, “It may have been done for noble reasons, but that doesn’t change the salient fact that they are manipulating the media by creating a fake scandal and lying about it to get more coverage.”

This situation is a perfect example of how social media can be used to go viral and generate awareness, but also exudes why this should be done in an honest and respectful manner. People LOVE a creative campaign, but people DON’T LOVE being deceived. While Greenpeace has received a large amount of publicity through this social media extravaganza, they have also found themselves in a situation of vulnerability as the media refers to them as villains, liars and evil.

Ryan Holiday adds,” Even if you think Shell is evil and will lie to achieve their goals, now you know Greenpeace is the exact same way.” Followed by a comment from Martin Robbins, journalist at New Statesman, “Spending tens of thousands of dollars to deliberately mislead and manipulate the public used to be something the bad guys did, but here we all are watching pigs in suits drive another important debate into the quagmire.”

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