Thursday, November 29, 2012

If They Put It on the Internet It Must Be True

We've seen two major internet hoaxes this week -- and it's still early Thursday as I write this. One turned women's heads in China; the other turned investors' heads on Wall Street.

First was the well-publicized story picked up from the satirical website the Onion, which named North Korean dictator Kim Jun Eun 2012’s Sexiest Man Alive. The People’s Daily, the online version of the Communist Party of China’s official news piece, missed or ignored the satire and ran a 55-page photo essay of Kim. The editor's tongue wasn't in cheek when the news agency quoted the Onion:

“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile. 'He has that rare ability to somehow be completely adorable and completely macho at the same time,' said Marissa Blake-Zweiber, editor of The Onion Style and Entertainment."  (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/something-missing-in-chinese-newspapers-entirely-accurate-summary-of-onion-report/)

"A Web editor explained that the slide show was eventually removed because, 'We have realized it is satirical.' The editor, who works on the People’s Daily site aimed at South Korean readers, which featured the report, 'declined to clarify,' when asked 'whether editors knew the Onion piece was satirical when the People’s Daily item was first posted.'”

View any picture of the dictator as you read the Onion's description and it's hard not to snicker and impossible to miss the satire. Separating truth from fiction wasn't so easy in a story PRWeb published about ICOA, a wireless hotspot provider. The posting announced that Google had purchased ICOA for $400 million.

Several news outlets including AP and popular technology blogs such as TechCrunch, picked up the fake story. PRWeb, a service for publishing press releases, owned by Vocus, Inc., offered a retraction:

"The release was not issued or authorized by ICOA. Vocus reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day. Even with reasonable safeguards, identity theft occurs, on occasion, across all of the major wire services. We have removed the fraudulent release and turned the matter over to the proper authorities for further investigation."  (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/28/tech/web/google-icoa-fake-news/index.html)

"'ICOA never had any discussions with any major company like Google,' George Strouthopoulos, ICOA's chief executive and chairman, said in an email. 'Someone, I guess a stock promoter with a dubious interest, is disseminating wrong, false and misleading info in the PR circles,' he said." (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/26/google-icoa-idUSL1E8MQ9CU20121126)

Over-the-counter shares of ICOA shot up five times in value after the fake news release. Well, that meant a jump from .0001 cents to .0005 cents. Stock value since has retreated to .0001 cents.

I figured a technology services company would be quick to explain the error and deflect blame on its website. Instead, there still was no mention as of today on the ICOA site. In fact, the most recent news release listed on the bottom of the homepage was dated 2006. (http://www.icoacorp.com/)

It's not news that hackers can create crises and that your company's detractors, alone or with the help of a 15-year-old internet-savvy kid, can create fake websites that come across more realistic than, say a dictator being named Sexiest Man Alive. Hacks may be one of the rare smoldering crises that can't entirely be prevented.

Therefore, your crisis communications plan must include a section describing your immediate response in case of cyber attacks. For more examples of how hackers can create crises, see the Institute for Crisis Management's Annual Crisis Report, page 3, at http://crisisconsultant.com/resources/.

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