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Norwich University student Todd Renner addressed the issue of online reputation management in one of his essays for the Spring 2011 session of the IS342 Management of Information Assurance course. Everything that follows is a close collaboration between Mr. Renner and Mich Kabay.
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On April 20, 2010, one of the worst marine oil spills in recorded history began with the lethal explosion of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform used by British Petroleum (BP). By the end of the first two months, BP was suffering massive PR damages: BP lost over $67 billion in capitalization within the first six weeks from a plunge in their share value, increasing to $100 billion in losses by the end of June 2010. And if that wasn't a strong enough indication of reputation damage, many BP gas stations actually covered up the company's logo due to losses in business from boycotts. BP needed a miracle – and that miracle was online reputation management (ORM).
Recognizing that the surge of media coverage and Internet postings was growing at a faster rate than the oil plumes, BP moved quickly to mitigate the damage – for its reputation, that is. The first step on its road to recovery was a massive pay-per-click (PPC) campaign through Google's AdWords. BP bought relevant search terms such as "oil spill," "leak," and "top kill," spending nearly $3.7 million in one month (approximately 65 times its normal advertising amount).
Even at the time, BP's approach generated criticism; for example, Pamela Seiple, writing in the HubSpot Blog that specializes in Internet marketing, wrote, "Critics are slamming BP's PPC strategy as unethical, since it pushes down other search results such as non-BP generated news and opinion pieces that are also addressing the spill. But is the strategy truly unethical?" She added, "Instead of spending so much money on highly competitive keywords in a pay-per-click campaign, BP might have been better off in boosting its image by allocating that money to the oil spill's recovery efforts."
The rest of BP's effort in reputation damage control was based on astroturfing and sock puppeteering, which were mentioned in the previous article in this series.
• The Gulf of Mexico Foundation (GMF) describes its goals as including ensuring "a sustainable quality of life for residents and visitors of the Gulf coasts."
• The GMF was featured in a front-page New York Times article, where the authors quoted its executive director, Quenton R. Dokken, as minimizing the severity of the catastrophe: "The sky is not falling. We've certainly stepped in a hole and we're going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn't the end of the Gulf of Mexico." Nowhere in the article was it mentioned that the GMF is heavily supported by the oil industry, with most of its board of directors either employed by offshore oil-drilling concerns or oil-industry dependent companies.
• America's Wetland Foundation (AWF) describes itself as working to raising awareness of the value and fragility of the Louisiana coastal wetlands. "AWF offers itself as a neutral arbiter, bringing diverse interests to the table to seek and establish solutions to ensure the sustainability of Louisiana's coastal environment and the economic activities that take place there for the great benefit of the nation."
• Actually, AWF is funded by "A group of oil companies including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Citgo, and other polluters…." The organization's own Sponsors page lists among others
American Petroleum Institute
AWF sponsored a video starring Sandra Bullock asking for the American taxpayer to pay for "a plan to restore America's Gulf be fully funded and implemented for me and
future generations." Bullock quickly withdrew from the campaign when she learned of the oil-industry sponsorship of the AWF;
the video seems to be difficult to find now on the 'Net.
• The Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama was widely reported in March 2011 as arguing that mass dolphin deaths in the Gulf were a reaction to an influx of cold water from unusual snow runoff. Newspaper accounts widely described the Sea Lab as "independent."
• However, BP donated $5 million to the Sea Lab in July 2011 and scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration pointed out that dolphins actually swim and avoid cold water.
The moral and ethical implications are clear. In the age of instant access, ORM/SEO companies are the kings of public perception because the extent of average public concern rarely extends beyond the first results page in a search. A 2004 study by Bernard J. Jansen and Amanda Spink entitled, "How are we searching the World Wide Web? A comparison of nine search engine transaction logs" (Information Processing and Management 42(1):2478-0263) reported that, for research from the late 1990s and early 2000s, "Overall, it appears that Web searchers are tending to view fewer documents per Web query, which might indicate a move to less complex interactions…. [T]he percentage of searchers viewing only one results page is increasing for users of both U.S. and European-based Web search engines. The percentage of searchers viewing only the first results page has increased from 29% in 1997 to 73% in 2002 for U.S.-based Web search engines users."
Surely there are ethical ORM/SEO companies, but the ugly proof of exploitation, deception, and manipulation lingers in the digital air. Unfortunately, it is becoming an all-too-common practice (even by our own government) as increasing emphasis is put on public perception rather than on facts.
In other news, by the end of 2010, BP reported a 30% increase in fourth-quarter profits in 2010 over 2009 – a true testament to SEO.
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Todd Renner expects to graduate from Norwich University in 2012 with a degree in Computer Security and Information Assurance. He will continue his academic career at the graduate level in the field of environmental law. He welcomes correspondence from readers. He is currently working out of Livingston, MT with the Natural Resources Defense Council and actively seeking ways to incorporate his undergraduate experience into his work in the environmental field.
Read more about security in Network World's Security section.
M. E. Kabay, PhD, CISSP-ISSMP, specializes in security and operations management consulting services and teaching. He is Chief Technical Officer of Adaptive Cyber Security Instruments, Inc. and Professor of Information Assurance & Statistics in the School of Business and Management at Norwich University. Visit his Web site for white papers and course materials.