Anonymous and Westboro Baptist Church: When PR Stunts Backfire

Companies struggle to gain exposure for products and services, and engage public relations firms to help craft and communicate effective marketing messages. Sometimes, organizations turn to PR stunts to attract attention, but PR stunts backfire almost as often as they succeed, so proceed with caution.

I don't have any proof that the Westboro Baptist Church drafted its own hoax threat from Anonymous as a public relations stunt. But, let's assume for a minute that it did. Anonymous has been in the headlines already--from the hacktivism in defense of Wikileaks to the takedown of information security firm HBGary. Why not try to ride the notoriety of Anonymous for increased exposure?

First, let's look at the positive side. Simply announcing the Westboro Baptist Church and its sites are on the radar of Anonymous raises interest. As media attention spreads, people visit the sites to see what all the fuss is about, or to see if the sites have been defaced or knocked offline yet by Anonymous. Since the threat itself is a hoax, there is little concern of an actual attack, so the result is tons of free publicity and a huge spike in Web traffic that will hopefully lead to more people joining the warped cause of the church.

Had the hoax ended there, it could have been a very successful PR stunt. However, the Westboro Baptist Church had to kick the hornet's nest by "responding" to the threat with an incendiary, derogatory attack on Anonymous, ending with the ill-fated bravado "bring it".

One reader wrote me about the previous article declaring the Anonymous threat a hoax and asked essentially, "if the Anonymous threat is a hoax, why are the Westboro Baptist Church sites under attack?" Well, the Westboro Baptist Church sites are, in fact, offline. However, Anonymous still denies having issued the original threat or being involved in any way in the subsequent attacks. The attacks could be from anybody, and are supposedly orchestrated by someone known as th3J35t3r (the Jester).

When you publicly issue a challenge to "bring it", you can consider it "brought". Any script kiddy can launch a denial-of-service attack and take down the Westboro Baptist Church websites. The WBC sites are obviously not bastions of security anyway, as Anonymous did succeed in defacing one of the remaining sites in under 10 minutes while engaged in a live interview with a WBC representative.

You might still consider the PR stunt a success in that it continues to keep WBC in the headlines. However, if the underlying goal was to expose the message of the church, it is a failure because the message is no longer online. In that light, the Anonymous hoax could be classified as a PR stunt gone wrong--like the Dell Streak PR stunt that appeared to be some sort of terrorist attack, or the 2007 media stunt by Turner Broadcasting that led to a bomb scare in Boston.

For an example of how to conduct a successful PR stunt, look at ioSafe. ioSafe has subjected its disaster-proof drives to a variety of stunts such as torching them, or submerging them in water. This year, it let journalists take shots at its new portable drive with a shotgun to demonstrate that the data remained unharmed.

These stunts get media attention, and illustrate the unique features and benefits of the products without inviting any negative backlash or causing city-wide panic. The goal of the PR stunt should be to generate media buzz and interest without creating an equal or greater amount of negative publicity.

Assuming for a moment that the initial Anonymous threat was not orchestrated by WBC as a publicity stunt, there is still a lesson to be learned. When your supporters can be counted on your fingers, and your enemies outnumber the population of China, it is unwise to brazenly invite attack.

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