How to deal with a Twitterstorm – an eyewitness account

I don’t know about you, but we’ve had quite a weekend at Lucky Generals.

On Saturday, thousands of people on Twitter were calling us every name under the sun (mostly beginning with “c”); hoping we’d contract various illnesses (chlamydia was one of the nicer ones); and generally offering to kill us (stabbing, shooting and burning seemed to be the favoured methodologies).  Then on Sunday, our timelines were equally full of people calling for us to receive payrises, promotions and knighthoods (sadly, none of which have been forthcoming, as of yet…).

The reason for all this uproar was an elaborate hoax that we created for Paddy Power, to draw attention to deforestation in the Amazon. You can read the full story here…

 …but basically the idea was to suggest that Paddy Power had cut down some of the Amazon rainforest to create a supportive message for the England World Cup team.   Then, we would use the ensuing outrage to get across the serious message that, in Brazil alone, an area the size of 122 football pitches is destroyed every 90 minutes, without anybody giving a monkey’s.

The project took weeks of planning, involving some pretty amazing work by the geniuses at Smoke and Mirrors, to make sure the photos looked credible.  It also involved loads of research: we liaised with various environmental charities to make sure that we had our facts straight and to find the right call to action (our final piece of communication directed people to a dedicated area of Greenpeace’s site). And it required lots of agonising about the most convincing way to leak the photos – obviously they couldn’t come from us, so we had to disseminate them via a cunning seeding plan over the “dark web”, helped by Sabotage Times.

But of course, all this planning counted for very little once the idea was out there, in social media.  Yes, we could shape things, with some well-chosen misdirects – a deleted tweet here, a provocative reply there (my favourite was “We didn’t chop down that much”).  Yes, we could amplify things – although interestingly, maintaining an official silence turned out to be one of the most effective ways to get others to talk about us.  But to a large degree, things were out of our hands.

At times, the sensation was quite terrifying: would the idea catch fire in the first place or would it turn out to be a damp squib; would the photos be plausible enough to stand scrutiny or would they be dismissed as obvious fakes; would the reveal be noticed or would it get lost in all the anger; and would people feel duped or would they thank us for making them thinking about a serious issue?

Luckily, our worries came to nothing.  But a little bit of fear was also what made the project so exhilarating.  All too often, marketers fret about ceding control to consumers, via social media. And typically, we agencies will reassure them that we can mitigate the risks involved, with careful planning.  Well so we can, to a degree, as our success story shows.  But the truth is, that we must also be prepared to be scared at times.  When we feel too comfortable, it’s time to be worried, as completely safe ideas rarely bring stellar rewards.  Likewise, when we’re bricking it, that can often be for the best.

This weekend was an extreme example, of course, and not everybody is as ballsy as Paddy Power (scrap that: nobody is).  But you don’t have to create your own Twitterstorm to realise that the whole of modern marketing is pretty tempestuous.  And the best advice for those sailing in choppy waters is : take what precautions you can, but only set off if you’ve got the stomach for it.

Or, to return to the rainforest – if you’re afraid of the dark and don’t like surprises, don’t go down to the woods today.

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