Over the weekend we wrote about someone pretending to be an online official with oil giant Exxon Mobil.
For those of you not familiar with Twitter (and you’re not alone) it’s a social networking site where people post 140-character updates about what they’re doing at any given moment. Here’s a video explaining it. Sounds odd to many, but it is being used widely, and not just by college kids (one local hospital uses it to identify patients having problems with service, for example).
When the existence of this Twitter-er was first pointed out to us (by Chron tech columnist Dwight Silverman) the reaction among the energy reporters and editors was mixed.
Editor 1: There’s no way on earth it’s really Exxon. It must be a fake.
Reporter 1: It could be. Maybe they’re trying to broaden their horizons.
Tech Columnist 1: No really, it’s them. At least I think so. Maybe you should call Exxon.
Reporter 2: Comcast has used Twitter.
Reporter 3: What’s ‘twitter’?
“Janet” the faux-Exxon Twitter-er already had 40 posts and about 300 people following her Friday afternoon. She had even been given a brief mention in a blog by Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research who covers Social Computing. So at first glance there appeared to be some legitimacy to this being a new online voice for Exxon. But no.
Our story followed, as did an updated one from Owyang, and others throughout the blogosphere.
Commenters on our online story over the weekend wondered why we bothered writing about this, saying essentially “so what?” Here are a few reasons:
• If true it would have represented an unexpected twist on Exxon Mobil’s communication methods. Twitter isn’t just like having a Web site, it’s asking for one-on-one dialogue with individuals. Given the strong feelings many have about the company (both pro and con) that’s a lot of people who might want to talk to you. And that’s not really what most of us would expect from Exxon. A change in how the largest non-government controlled oil company communicates with the world is a legitimate business story.
• Since it wasn’t true, it means someone has successfully fooled a lot of people into thinking they’re the official voice of Exxon Mobil. They may very well continue to fool people (“Janet” keep posting over the weekend even after she was outed). So far she doesn’t appear to have said anything outrageous, but she has drifted from the official company line on a few things.
• “Companies must monitor their brand online or they loose power over it,” according to Owyang. It’s not that hard to get someone to believe you’re the legitimate voice of an organization. Sprinkle in some damning comments and you could do some serious damage to a company’s reputation, even if it’s later proven to be untrue. Visit the business section of Snopes.com and you’ll likely find some items you thought were true debunked. Or check out some of the pranks of The Yes Men.
It’s very possible Janet is a company employee who is doing this secretly because she wants to emphasize some positives about the company. If that’s the case it’s also interesting as an extreme case of employee loyalty. Who do you think she is?
**** UPDATE ****
This morning “Janet” made the following post in reply to a direct question about her identity (you can only send her a question if she is “following” you):
“I am an employee of ExxonMobil, who has decided to put forward her pride in her own company.”