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.

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

  1. Brand jacking is extremely rampant… good catch. it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. keep us posted.

  2. What a bizarre incident!

    What I don’t understand is why? I’ll look forward to reading more about this as it unfolds.
    Who is Janet? Why pretend to be ExxonMobileCorp employee if s/he’s not? What if s/he is connected to ExxonMobileCorp but one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing? How would that reflect on the company as a whole?

    A very good lesson in monitoring your own Brand’s presence online!

  3. Exxon comes across here as pretty clueless. Great if they “step forward” and get the hint about engaging their brand via new channels like Twitter. I’m not holding my breath. It’s such a huge cultural leap for giant companies to engage in social media/social marketing. I wish they’d wake up to it, but I don’t have much hope.

  4. Great development, from the brand jacking to the realization of the hoax to the post-mortem. Taken together it all (again) underscores the critical importance of paying attention (as a brand)–even if not particiapting directly–to what is being said, posted, or uploaded on the Social Web.

  5. The real error in this matter is the fact that Exxon wasn’t monitoring their brand, and this could’ve continued unabated for months, with no one from Exxon being the wiser. Had Jeremiah not brought it to their attention, an unknown, unaffiliated Twitter user would’ve remained Exxon’s public representative in the community. A shame indeed. Exxon doesn’t understand, and I might go as far as to say that Exxon might not truly see, the ramifications of a fake in these circumstances. It just isn’t something they’ve embraced, nor see the need to embrace yet. Not now, maybe not for awhile, despite this pervasive incident. It goes to show that while we’re making amazing inroads with social media and web marketing as a replacement for traditional PR & marketing (or at least a very viable supplement), we still have a long, long way to go in making these methods the accepted paths.

  6. Thank you for sharing this story about brand-jacking with us. I’ll definitely include it when I talk to my Corporate PR students in the fall about monitoring their brands online.

  7. F.

    I think Exxon is one of many brands that are not prepared for this new world.

    Also, due credit needs to go to Shel Holtz for uncovering this –he passed it to me.

    Barbara, wow a case study already.

  8. Actually, Jeremiah, I think we also need to ask ourselves what lessons WE can from this incident? After all, we just ran with the story that Exxon Mobil was was the latest brand to join Twitter (myself included) — without actually verifying that it was the company itself behind the account.

    Thanks to Shel Holtz for checking into this — before we all started incorporating the wrong into our PowerPoint presentations!

  9. Jeremiah: A big part of it is that most bloggers (again, myself included) aren’t acting as journalists, and we tend to rush to publish something without taking much — or any — time to verify the facts of what we’re writing.

    Sometimes that works to our benefit, but sometimes — like this time — it comes back to bite us in the ass.

  10. A side-note: what’s Twitter’s responsibility in all of this? Now that the account has been deemed a hoax, does Twitter have the right to revoke the user name and turn it over to the rightful owners (if they even want it)?

    We tread a fine line here between a hands-off approach (something Twitter is notorious for, even in cases of harassment) and a overtly Big Brother approach. Which is the most appropriate for this situation?

  11. I think those of us heavily engaged in this space lose sight of the fact that this is a frightening new world for the official representatives of many organizations. Keep Geoffrey Moore’s technology adoption curve. ExxonMobil doesn’t have to be a laggard to get cut unawares by Twitter. They just have to be a late adopter (or maybe part of the early majority). The fact is, they WERE aware of the account and were trying to figure out what to do about it. As I noted in a post I just wrote, if this situation proves anything, it’s that organizations need to put mechanisms in place that allow them to get up to speed very quickly on new social channels. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss ExxonMobil (or other big companies) as “clueless.” If you’re aware and trying to climb the learning curve, you’re not clueless.

  12. Jeremiah, who do you think these sorts of situations are really worse for — the companies (in this case Exxon) or Twitter and its community? It seems to me in this instance that Twitter and its users (and yes, I am looking at you!) were the ones who really got punk’d….

  13. Robert

    I agree, I’ve certainly learned a lesson here. In fact, we all did, the Twitter community, Exxon, myself, and even Janet wasted our time.

    While this doesn’t frequently happen, instances like this make us all pause and think.

    Going forward, I now must get confirmation that a brand really is who they say each other.

    There’s a few ways around this –brands can inform folks at the Social Media Club, Blog Council, or even social computing analysts: a confirmation by email can easily fix this.

  14. The irony is Mobil was a pioneer in using media in new ways to get their message out.

    Starting in the early 70s, they placed an ad every Thursday on the NY Times op-ed page stating their position on an issue or hyping their corporate giving.

    So in a way, Janet did get it right in spirit if not always in the exact details. She argued Exxon Mobil’s positions and pointed to the money the gave to charity.

    The artist Hans Haacke both wrote about and created art critical of corporate underwriting of the arts.

    In one piece, he wrote: A public relations executive of Mobil in New York aptly called the company’s art support a “good will umbrella,” and his colleague from Exxon referred to it as a “social lubricant.”

    And the Yes Men and other artists have used brand jacking in interesting ways.

    On a more practical level, every corporate twitter account should link to a page on the company’s website which verifies it is the official voice of the company.

  15. Scott

    This isn’t a ‘twitter responsibility’ issue. There are so many social websites, that none of them have the resources to confirm identities.

    Confirmation needs to come from the corporate website, or an confirmation email to one of the groups I just listed out.

  16. Robert, this is one of the reasons I don’t buy the notion that bloggers are de facto journalists. Journalists check stories. Even IBM acknowledges the difference. In its social computing guidelines, IBM tells its employees to “be the first to correct your own mistakes,” not “confirm your facts with two sources before publishing them.” Jeremiah did exactly that.

  17. Awesome, and ironic.

    Don’t we usually catch the company rep pretending not to be from the company?

    Best luck to ExxonWhateverTwit, we’ll eventually find out she was just long on oil futures

  18. i appreciate the thoroughness of your piece — you posed the important questions that the “real” exxon must answer — in other words, “where are you? people want to talk to you”

  19. And/or Exxon can be told by the group of people hoping to change media, communication and the world – that the company can take a long walk off of a short pier. The Alaskan oil spill is one matter, working with Indonesian death squads is another ( for background and google Exxon human rights for an update this summer from Yahoo News – 2 URLs are getting my previous comments moderated for spam). These are presumably just two examples among many.

    I almost always argue against people who say that “Twitter is trivial’ but when it comes to “What Exxon Mobile should do” – I think that’s exactly what it is.

  20. Sorry, that URL is – US Supreme Court just 6 weeks ago rejects Exxon’s appeal to drop lawsuit against it for employing Indonesian soldiers engaged in a campaign of rampant human rights abuses in defense of their natural gas extraction facilities. You want to hear horror stories? This case is full of them – what the company does on Twitter is irrelevant imho.

  21. Jeremiah

    Normally, I’d agree. Social media sites can’t police identities. But this has played out and it’s now publicly known that the account doesn’t belong to ExxonMobil. My point was more along the lines of: if Twitter becomes aware of this fact, shouldn’t they take the account down?

  22. If Janet had said anything bad about Exxon, then, yes, there’d be an issue to answer. As it is, relatively nothing has been said, at most a few interesting answers supposedly given.
    After all, this is not the real Darth Vader … and I doubt neither the real DV nor Stephen Spielberg is going to reclaim.

  23. Scott

    According to this article, Twitter is reviewing the case.


    Jeffers said the company has not yet decided what, if anything, it plans to do about the entries.

    Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, said in an e-mail that the site has a policy that supports company trademarks and brands.

    “Exxon can contact Twitter if they believe that there is a case of impersonation, and we will review the account,” Stone said.


    Via article:

  24. Twitter’s Terms of Service clearly spells out the process that any company can take to defend its trademarks and copyrights.

    I’m no IP lawyer, but isn’t incumbent upon the trademark holder to defend their intellectual property?

  25. You do realize this is someone having some geeky fun by jerking people around. I can picture some kid in a college apartment with other techie roommates giggling their assess off as they cull out facts from Wikipedia about Exxon and using them as Twitter fodder. Safe to say no one is super psyched about oil companies now, so using them as a spoof is pretty ingenious. That said, I hope they go away soon as it’s muddying things up for us Twitter purists.

  26. twitter is soooo waayy over-rated. So what if there’s a fake Exxon out there? Perhaps it will matter to, say, a firm – but an oil company? C’mon!!

    That’s the problem with a lot of you guys. You like to over-rate your importance.

  27. There is seemingly NO protection for brands in the twitter world. In fact, this type of news is why senior executives push back on social initiatives, blaming the risk to the organization and it’s offline reputation. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on identity validation, Jeremiah.

    I setup an account for my former firm, expecting some disgruntled law student would hijack it given the opportunity. I’m sure they won’t be using it any time soon.

  28. I am beginning to wonder if Janet might be an independent service station owner or representative – it would explain the service station graphics.

  29. I missed this “storm” but for those of us that have worked with oil companies, the embracing of social media is something that will not happen.

    If I had seen this earlier, I would have doubted it the whole time.

  30. Jeremy

    In retrospect, I can see why many would say that. McDonald’s opened up with their friendly community site, as has Wal-Mart (tried that is) so it was wishful thinking when it comes to Exxon.

  31. This whole affair is very interesting and did unfold rather quickly – great new case study for those question whether it can happen to them. At a minimum brands need to understand the next realities of the web and dedicate appropriate time and resources to paying attention to it. I would disagree with Jeremy about oil companies as we have many solid conversations happening with then – not Exxon but maybe we should.
    Great speaking with you today Jeremiah with be in touch with “boomer” contacts.

  32. McDonald’s ain’t Exxon, though. 😉

    I do not disclose my past clients, but let me put it this way: certain industries may monitor, but they are not going to engage.

    That is the case here – but we jump too fast on what we want to see rather than what we really are seeing.

  33. I think that we tend to confuse online trust and community. At the end of the day, it’s about people. People who behave poorly in the offline world have more space to do so online because there is a misconception about trust. A month ago I started following a fellow employee on Twitter; she sent me an email saying that she is now following me since she checked on Cisco directory and I was legit. I never thought twice about checking her out.
    Those of us who get value from Twitter want to promote it. But we need to proceed with caution and use the same common sense as we do offline. This is an important lesson but does not lessen the benefits of Twitter in helping to create networks.

  34. This was a good heads-up for me. In light of this, I’ve put the banks ph# and my local on my “citizensbanker” twitter and profiles. Creating a bank persona, rather than me-speaking-for-the-bank is fun, and I hope a wee bit charming, but ouch! re: Janet.

  35. Shel Holtz writes: ‘I think those of us heavily engaged in this space lose sight of the fact that this is a frightening new world for the official representatives of many organizations.’

    There’s nothing new about on-line faking when it comes to pretending to be a corporation.

    This has been done again and again, often with devastating results.

    There’s some info here on past events:

  36. Did anyone else see that Janet is back, only with a new account? The original one appears to have been deleted.

    # Name Janet
    # Location Irving, Texas
    # Bio Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenge

    Quote from August 1, “I belive we are the first major energy company here, ExxonMobile is trying to lead the way in Corporate Citizenship”

  37. In other news: is also not the official voice of the company, and that guy emailing you from Nigeria is shockingly *not* the prince looking to launder millions of dollars through your bank account during a coup.

    Seriously, is this your first day on the internet?

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  39. Pingback: In Tweet We Trust?
  40. Not quite on-topic, but does anyone have any suggestions for what has happened in the BP scandal of the mexico gulf. Some say this is a hoax… I really don't follow.. 😐

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