by Marc Wright
Internal communications is facing its greatest threat ever. The rise of low-cost websites created by employees for employees means that your own intranet, forums and newsletters run the risk of being bypassed and rendered obsolete. In this article I explore the history of pirate sites; look at some examples of ‘gripe’ sites that have cost companies dearly; and suggest some steps you can take to protect yourself and your channels from these marauding invaders.
A short history of Pirates
It all started 5 years ago with the arrival of a particularly vicious website called www.ComEdreporter.com – an anonymous site that started to take pop shots at the American power utility ComEd and its parent, Exelon. The site was poorly designed and vitriolic, but if you worked in the industry (or reported on it for the media) it was an irresistible port of call. Every time there was a power cut, or the management took an unpopular action, the inside story would appear on this pirate site in less than flattering terms:
Yet another day of insanity; it really is a crime what they have done to this company. The employees lose, the customers lose and the execs get all the money..
In an online poll of the question Does Exelon/ComEd treat you like a valued employee? the results were less than flattering (see right).
ComEdreporter was typical of these anonymous sites; design and layout were rudimentary and all contributions were hidden behind obscure names for fear of reprisal. Yet the site was popular among journalists who would quote from it whenever Exelon was in the news and the pirates were getting more hits than the official site. Today this pirate site (or gripe site) is no longer sailing on the high seas of public opprobrium. Either through lack of interest or funds it is now a shadow of its former self. Why it has withdrawn from criticising the company is hard to tell as no one at the publishers wanted to talk to me about why they no longer post, but for a while it was a real threat to the company’s reputation and internal relations with staff.
Losing the radio station
In the meantime some other, far more successful, examples have become established. A good example is www.browncafe.com which is the site run by and featuring the comments of the many thousand employees of the parcel delivery company UPS.
Browncafe was established in 1999 and now boasts thousands of threads and hundreds of thousands of posts. They contain the obvious comments such as those about pay and conditions, disciplinary procedures and unpopular management initiatives. But the site is also home to a great deal of best practice advice as well as engaging humour.
The content is mostly from North America but it shows a healthy range of subjects (including tackling racism at work) that any intranet editor would be proud to have on their own site. But when I asked the corporate PR team at UPS what they thought about the site they pleaded a lack of resources to engage with it:
Although we occasionally look at browncafe.com to see what’s on there, it’s not a UPS sponsored site so there isn’t any interaction for us to discuss.
Yet if you look at a word cloud of issues on browncafe then you will see that the most popular tag by far is management. It seems the internal team are in denial about where their audience is getting much of their information about the company where they work. Ignoring such rich and extensive content is not just short-sighted, its ceding communication power to a channel where the company has neither control nor influence.
The $2 billion gripe site
One large organisation that has paid dearly for the activity of a pirate site is the oil giant Shell. www.royaldutchshellplc.com may be the legal name of the Anglo-Dutch company but it certainly isnt their official website. Instead its run by the Donovans in Essex, England, a father and son team who dedicate their time to being a thorn in the side of the multinational.
The origin of their feud goes back in the mists of time when the two men ran a marketing promotion business servicing Shell. They claim they lost the contract unfairly when there was a change of commissioner at the client. Numerous court cases between Shell and the Donovans ensued but the most significant one was where a US judge decided that, since the Donovans make no money from the site, they are full entitled to use the URL. And use it they have to vilify the company (although they claim to always check their facts with Shell first).
According to John Donovan the site receives over 1.7m hits per month from environmentalists, disgruntled former employees and journalists. As it has grown www.royaldutchshellplc.com has become a lightning rod for all dissatisfaction with the oil company and some of those strikes have been very expensive.
A case in point is control of the Sakahlin gas fields off the East coast of Russia. Shell developed the fields when gas was at a much lower price than today and signed a very lucrative deal with the Russian government for a share of the future revenues. But as the price rose Russias green minister Oleg Mitvol contacted the Donovans to find as much dirt as he could on the companys environmental record.
John Donovan opened up the voluminous files that fill the modest house he shares with his 93 year-old father. Even the kitchen cupboards groan – not with food – but with files that have been leaked over the years to these men with a mission. Armed with the Donovans’ information Mitvol was able to rescind the agreement with Shell and force them to sell a huge part of their share in future revenues to the Russian Statoil.
The rumoured cost to Shell a cool $22 billion.
But pirates do not just sail the website channels they also ply the oceans of twitter posts. Another oil company, BP, realised too late that a pirate had disguised itself as the official sounding twitter feed of BPGlobalPR. The tweets were a witty twist on BP’s lacklustre PR efforts such as:
“Think locally, act locally- if you don’t live near the Gulf of Mexico, get on with your life.”
“This mess would be a lot easier to clean up if we were allowed to use slaves.”
Before BP could appeal to twitter to block the unauthorised use of their brand the twitter feed had achieved huge traction. The man behind it, Leroy Stick, explains his motivation:
“I started @BPGlobalPR, because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.”
It is difficulty to quantify what damage this pirate effort inflicted on BP – but it certainly didn’t help their efforts to limit the shredding of their reputation during the period of the Deep Water Horizon oil disaster. Humour can be a deadly weapon in undermining a company that is vulnerable to criticism and social media offers a cheap accessible tool that can go viral very quickly.
So what should you do to protect your internal communications from pirate attacks? Here are 4 steps to fighting pirates before they can board your vessel.
1. Be afraid – very afraid
Do not ignore a pirate site, but recognise it for the threat it is. Just because their site is poorly designed with atrocious spelling and scant regards for your brand guidelines, do not think they will not attract an audience. Pirates have the advantage of appearing to represent the voice of staff – and if they do it in an authentic and amusing way then their share of people’s attention will grow rapidly and your authority as an internal communicator will diminish.
2. Protect your treasure
Your brand is extremely valuable – so protect it in the online environment. Register all the obvious permutations as website URLs and twitter feeds. Also scan the blogosphere and the web using google alerts for any malicious use of your company name so you can see the pirates coming.
3. Get All Hands on Deck
If you are attacked by pirates then make sure you have all your canons pointing at them. Enlist external PR, Legal, HR, Marketing and the senior team to help you repel boarders. Your CEO might not consider a jokey website too much of a threat to the business, but remember what happened to Shell who have paid dearly for what started as a minor skirmish over a marketing contract.
4. Borrow their clothes
When in the 1960s the BBC started losing young audiences to a pirate radio station – Radio Caroline moored out in the North Sea – they first tried to shut it down using government authority. But as Richard Curtis’s film, The Boat That Rocked, portrayed – this was a strategy doomed to failure. The allure of rock and roll was always going to win in the battle for the ears of a new generation. So instead the BBC stole all the pirate DJs, adopted the style of the new format and set up Radio 1, which then became the station of choice for Britain’s teenagers.
In the same way I urge you to look at what works on the pirate sites and adopt those same techniques for your own intranet. One of the most popular features on Browncafe is a space for delivery drivers to post the most silly or badly spelled signs that they come across on their routes (see right for an example).
Now if the official intranet owned this sort of user generated content they would not be in such danger of losing their own radio station.
SOURCE ARTICLE published 3 August, 2010 – 15:58