Today’s news includes the story of a hoax launched as an attack on coal company Peabody Energy. In short, an activist group calling itself Coal is Killing Kids developed a false campaign including a news release, a Coal Cares website and a Twitter account. The campaign positions itself as a Peabody Energy sponsored initiative (it’s not) to provide free inhalers and discounts for asthma medication for children living within 200 miles of a coal plant.
Close reading of the content on the site quickly reveals the true intent of the site’s creators. From the site:
Coal Cares™ is a brand-new initiative from Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, to reach out to American youngsters with asthma and to help them keep their heads high in the face of those who would treat them with less than full dignity. For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler, Coal Cares™ lets them inhale with pride.
Yikes. Peabody Energy should be in full crisis communication mode, prepared to react to this action. The company, however, seems to be under the impression that a social media-based initiative can be fought with traditional public relations. They’ve released a statement, and placed it on their website. The story has been picked up by CNN and Wired Science; CNN noted that “A Peabody Energy spokeswoman did not immediately return a call or an e-mail from CNN” and Wired Science mentions the company’s “immediate response” with the aforementioned statement released to the media.
Unfortunately, Peabody does not seem prepared to react and respond appropriately, using digital communications to combat a digital communications-based attack. Here are six things the company should do right now.
- Launch a website with a blog (I’d say launch a blog on their current site but it’s clear the Peabody Energy website needs a complete overhaul and there just isn’t time for that). The blog will provide a platform for the company to respond to questions and publish content correcting the misinformation the company says is being shared by the Coal Cares campaign.
- Appoint an active, visible spokesperson who will be accessible and is authorized to engage with the media and the public to address questions quickly.
- Create and post videos of the Peabody Energy team talking about the company’s efforts to run a safe and clean coal operation.
- Mobilize the coal community (employees, partners, political allies) and enlist their support in “liking” a multi-platform campaign and content designed to share positive stories about the company.
- Offer Vic Svec, the leadership team member with a Twitter account, counsel and coaching to leverage the effectiveness of that account and the ability to use Twitter to engage and share content that casts Peabody in a more positive light.
- Begin today working with the leadership team to help them understand the culture of transparency, the power of the social web and how they can use it in their own interests, and developing a social strategy that can be executed by members of the Peabody community so future attacks won’t have quite the same effect.
Coal is a difficult industry to defend, but it is not indefensible, nor is it an industry we can do without. Peabody deserves the chance to set the record straight and to have the tools to do so in the same platforms as their detractors. One thing social media makes available to all of us is a level playing field; you just need to know the rules of the game.