How “Janet” Fooled the Twittersphere (and me) She’s the Voice of Exxon Mobil

The game is up, “Janet” is not an official Exxon representative
A few days ago, the Twittersphere was curious, interested, and excited to see a member of Exxon Mobil’s employee ranks to join the twitter conversation and engage in conversation…sadly, she’s not a real employee. You can see the fake Twitter account called ExxonMobilCorp

The mystery unraveled –in 3 days
Shel Holtz was one of the first to discover this (update: he’s posted this thoughts), as he commended Exxon for their efforts, their response was “It’s not us”. The mystery continued to unravel as I received an email from the Houston Chronicle Press wanting to talk to me about what I knew (Update: The Chronicle’s story is now live) –the word hit mainstream analysts and press in three days, secrets don’t remain secrets for long in internet speed.

“Janet” has been posing as an Exxon employee, answering questions about the direction of the company, where philanthropy resources are being spent, and even responding (a few, which were very off-tone) about the Exxon Valdez.

A real conversation with Exxon
I spoke to Alan Jeffers, Spokesperson of Exxon Mobil a few minutes ago to get his side of the story, and to offer some words of wisdom, which I’ll share below. First of all, Exxon has been “brand jacked”, (and will now make the official punk’d list), they were caught off guard because they were not monitoring and responding to their own online brand.

Alan was forthcoming, honest, and appears to want to do the right thing, I posed a few questions to him, his responses in quotes:

What if this was an employee in a remote arm of the company, would it then be ok?

“It’s not really relevant, there are only people that are authorized and not-authorized, even people with the best intentions, may not know what the appropriate position is or the facts, we think that there’s a problem, as we don’t want to be misleading people and there’s a lot of errors what the person is posting even if it was something that had the best of intentions could be misleading.

It’s our perception that social networking is based on honesty, transparency and trust, it’s important that they become forthcoming about who they represent”

This is slap hands on everyone’s hands, Exxon hasn’t really done anything wrong, they were just caught unaware. In fact, the whole Twitter community (myself included, see my write up) has been fooled including this list of brands on twitter.

What message do you want to give to Janet the supposed company representative?

“Be forth-coming about who you are, it’s ok to be in support for or against something, but you should be forth-coming about your identity”

What lessons have you learned about monitoring your brands in social networks?

“We need to be diligent about what is being said about you, by you, and those pretending to be you”

I see a lot of opportunities for Exxon here, it’s clear the community wants to talk to you, you can roll with this by coming face forward:

“We’re going to examine what is going on, and if indeed if there is anything to do, I want to underscore we’re not trying to prevent anyone from going out. There’s lots of opportunities, we want to speak to people, and to learn what people think”

Alan and Exxon employees have a big opportunity at hand –once they’re ready.

Options for Janet
It’s also interesting that Janet tweeted this, just a few hours ago: “btw, @jowyang , thanks for that wonderful piece:”. Janet, I highly recommend that you do one of the following: 1) Turn over the Twitter ID keys to Exxon, 2) indicate that you’re not an official representative. I see that you’re attempting to preserve the brand, but you can be a brand advocate to Exxon without attempting to pretend to be an employee –in fact, you may be hurting the brand. (Update: Aug 3, Janet has deleted that tweet thanking me and continues to pose as an official Exxon representative)

Key Takeaways

Lack of identity confirmation continues to plague the web
Identity is a serious issue on the web, we’ve no great way of confirming true profiles, therefore, going forward, before we can conclude a blog or twitter or Facebook account is official, we need to see trackbacks coming from the corporate site, or contact info and get confirmation.

Companies must monitor their brand
Brands should be monitoring the discussion and instances of their keywords in social networks –failure to do so results in becoming case studies.

An opportunity for the real Exxon to step forward
The power has shifted to those that participate, so while Janet may have achieved momentum by participating, further opportunity lies within Exxon when they’re ready to come forward.

The community (myself included) need to first validate identities
This fourth one, I just added. It was too easy for someone to assume a brand’s identity and we all fell for it, myself obviously. We need to first determine if these are the real employees and validate. I’m exploring some ways to do this, we’ll revisit this topic soon.

Legal and Trademark issues complicate
Update 12 hours later: It’s become clear that even more issues are bubbling up from comments, and the social media club dlist, which I’m part of. For example, in UK there are clear laws (not just guidelines) about being transparent about buzz marketing campaigns, and some are suggesting that Twitter be responsible for being a brand cop, while some say brands should be accountable. Some are suggesting that Janet become the “Scoble” of Exxon while Marshall Kirkpatrick says Exxon should walk completely away from Twitter.

Corporations should have internal social media policies
Update August 8: Zdnet has additional coverage on this bizarre case, Janet, in a recent tweet suggests she’s an actual employee, that’s standing by her employer. Zdnet suggests that companies should have internal social media policies, dictating where the guidelines are, a good point.

Note: I incorrectly had Dallas Chronicle, and have subsequently changed it to Houston Chronicle.