What if BPGlobalPR was created by a BP competitor?

If you haven't followed the @BPGlobalPR Twitter account yet, you're missing what might be one of the most talked about Twitter streams on the planet right now. The account, created by a private citizen who likes to be called 'Leroy Stick', consists of dark, humorous tweets that use the oil spill tragedy and shed the worst possible light on the company responsible for it.

In recent weeks, many PR groups have been debating how BP should handle this fake account. The company recently asked Leroy to add that the account was a 'fake' in the bio (which he did) but has not made any further moves to have the account removed (it currently has over 150K followers and Tweets quite regularly).

As a brand digital guy, I've been thinking a lot about what I would do if I were working for BP right now. I think that their strategy is OK - removing the account (or trying to do so) would keep the story going, add more followers and encourage many more fake accounts to sprout out of the woodwork. Placing to much of a focus on the account, getting legal involved to shut down something that is already popular and placing more of an emphasis on the account is only cause for more trouble. BP also needs to keep acknowledging that this fake, popular Twitter account isn't the problem - the Oil Spill is. All their efforts - business and communications - should be dedicated to solving that problem, not this minor one.

But then I got to thinking. What if I worked for Shell or Exxon or another large, competitor? What if a competitor created this account?

For starters, it would be extremely deceptive and dangerous for one to do so (could you imaging it being uncovered that this was the case?). But when you think about it, this sort of 'brand highjacking' by competitors becomes more possible in the world of social media. Unverified accounts, temporary email addresses and a bit of promotion and you've got an untraceable (relatively) account that can cause trouble if it gains steam.

It takes issues management to a whole new level. Is your competitor struggling? Is there a hot topic that is starting to gain traction among your target group? Why not start an account to help fuel the fire against a competitor? It would be like Advil creating a bunch of 'fake Mom' accounts during the Motrin disaster a few years ago.

I realize that it takes time for a fake account to create an impact. And BPGlobalPR has spawned a ton of spin off accounts that have little to no followers. But as a competitor of BP, aren't you quietly smiling at the PR coming off of this Twitter account? (not at the Oil-spill related as it's hard to smile about the worst environmental disaster in US History)

It's a strange thought but this type of brand-hijacking has been done before. If you visit artist forums or communities, you see it all the time. Don't believe me? It's the primary reason why Trend Reznor left social media after blazing the trail.

Fake accounts exist everywhere. Anyone can by a URL with your brand in it and it's hard to get it removed without adding fuel to the fire. Social brand hijacking is going to become more frequent. Do you have the team and policies in place to deal with it? Or are you one of the brands that is (secretly) a part of it?