Coal Cares: A Cautionary Tale

Coal Cares: A Cautionary Tale

What would you do you do if you were the target of someone out to get your industry? How would you react and respond to the real time attacks on your company and your industry — an industry in which you are the BIGGEST player? How would you tell your stakeholders that you never saw this coming?

On Tuesday, a group called Coal is Killing Kids struck at Peabody Energy with a hoax website attacking the coal industry’s resistance to federal pollution reforms. looks real (as if it was actually produced by Peabody Energy), reads real and, honestly, at first even had me fooled.

It was launched with a news release on PRNewswire and then promoted heavily in the social space. Its hook? That Peabody is offering free custom inhalers to kids who live within 200 miles of a coal plant, along with a $10 coupon towards the asthma medication. (They aren’t really, but the website reads as though it’s from Peabody, and that’s the offer being made on the site.)

The news release even read “Children can choose from a variety of youth-themed inhaler cases, from tween faves like “the Bieber” and “My Little Pony,” to the “Emo” and “Diamond” inhalers for older, style-conscious youth. There’s even “My First Inhaler,” for tots.” Yikes!

Dubbed the Puff-Puff line of inhalers, the release went on to say that this is “the first, and most ambitious, market-friendly public health initiative of this scope of any privately-owned American company, and that it testifies to the energy industry’s commitment to the well-being of all citizens, including the youngest.” Double Yikes!

So here’s where my first question comes in—what would you do if…? Well, Peabody did respond, issuing a statement saying the site was a hoax and that it is proud to help people live longer and better through coal-powered electricity. But OOPS, they cited research from the World Resources institute that the WRI says it never conducted…in fact, WRI actually put out a release of its own saying Peabody “falsely attributed a conclusion to (WRI)…”

My point is that, man, this is just embarrassing. To be the biggest player in an industry that often has a target on its back and not have a plan in place to address this in a real-time fashion is simply not acceptable.

Coal is Killing Kids was even able to secure the Twitter handle @PeabodyCoal. Again, not acceptable, and again, embarrassing. The Twitter feed has gained a small following and is now beginning to follow a number of the largest anti-coal groups in the Twitterverse. This too adds to the embarrassment, as the clever tweets are now being retweeted to thousands of people who will happily keep the snowball rolling.

So what should have happened? Well, first, Peabody should have been monitoring the potential for this type of thing. If nothing else, monitoring sentiment around its product and its industry. In this case, with all of the volatility around the topic of coal, Peabody should have had its antennas on high alert. They also should have already been in the social space. So many companies still grossly underestimate the power of interactive and social media and/or social marketing initiatives. Finally, they should have had their facts straight before responding to the hoax. Pointing to research that the researchers say doesn’t exist simply adds fuel (no pun intended) to the already blazing fire.

Taking a proactive approach to the social and interactive world gives companies a way to address customers in a two-way fashion. It becomes less about telling the customer something and more about discussing and interacting.

That’s the real power of the social space when it comes to matters of possible contention. Talking to your customers, addressing their needs and concerns in real-time, being there to take praise as well as to take criticism; none of these principals of brand and customer expectation management were practiced in this case.  This is an excellent example of what the future holds  — a future in which companies of all sizes will need to think about how they might build a more positive understanding of who they are and what they do. They will need to be open and honest and incredibly engaging — with whomever their end customer and key influencers might be. Otherwise, they could very possibly find themselves in the crosshairs.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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