Activists’ Phony PR Campaign Hits Bank of America

by PR Coach on April 23, 2012

Yes Men activists launch sophisticated PR campaign parody against B of A

Activists launched a creative, ironic and sophisticated but phony “Your Bank of America” PR campaign against the North Carolina-headquartered financial institution yesterday.

This comes just a week after my recent post Perils of Online Crisis Public Relations.

Andy Bichlbaum worked with The Yes Men and stepped forward to take credit for the high-profile public relations campaign. The Yes Lab later posted a video with Bichlbaum explaining the campaign. The initiative has support from Rainforest Action Network, New Bottom Line and Occupy Wall Street.

The campaign is clearly the work of skilled PR people turned activist.

Elements in the bogus campaign to date include:

  • a phony news release claimed to be issued on BusinessWire and later denied by BW
  • a bogus “personal” letter signed by CEO Brian Moynihan
  • an impressive and very creative spoof website that is going viral in social media and on the internet
  • a second fake BofA news release responding to the attack.

Phony News Release Carried on Dow Jones

The activists released a first bogus news release Wednesday, April 18th at 9 AM with a Charlotte, NC BusinessWire dateline. BusinessWire denied transmitting the release.

Various financial news media in New York received copies of the release which read in part:

Bank of America Announces “Your Bank of America” Campaign, Partnership with Taxpayers to Revamp U.S. Banking Date(s): 18-Apr-2012 9:00 AM

As future clouds, opportunities arise for public synergy

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Apr. 18, 2012– Bank of America today announced the launch of an unprecedented campaign to reach out to the American public for guidelines on how banking should happen. The campaign, Your Bank of America (www.yourbofa.com), leverages the American public’s disaffection with today’s banking practices into a full suite of real banking solutions.

“We may not have all the answers, but we’re confident that those answers exist,” said Brian Moynihan, Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America. “We want to make sure the American people are well positioned to assert control and implement changes in the direction of banking, in the eventuality that such control becomes feasible.”

“Bringing in the public sector is a good strategy for earning buy-in at a difficult time for our industry,” said Moynihan. “But this is not just a PR campaign: as the public uses our new website to share ideas of how banks should be run, we will see many ideas that are quite far ahead of the market norm. Running a bank in a sane and common-sense way isn’t rocket science—and that’s something the customer knows best.”…

Read carefully, there’s no way savvy editors should have let this run without fact-checking. That didn’t stop Dow Jones. In a reflection of what’s wrong with media these days, sloppy editorial work let this phony release get on their wire service. It took more than 90 minutes for DJ to issue this correction and remove the release from its archive.

The funny thing is, this release is so believable because it’s written in familiar, stilted corporate-speak. I sympathize with editors dealing with this kind of “news” daily.

In just one day, there are already more than 470 stories on Google News. [Update: 570+ by second day.]

Fake Bank of America Website Believable

The Wall Street Journal reported on the Dow Jones gaffe in a blog post and outlined details of the phony PR campaign and website.

The fake website yourbofa.com is a work of art. It’s cleverly designed, brilliantly written and hard to distinguish from the real Bank of America website.

Notable features in the fake website included:

  • the letter from CEO Brian Moynihan
  • An “It’s Your Story” page questions funding of dirty industries like coal, questions BofA’s financial stability and exhorts the public to take over the bank.
  • The “Lessons Learned” page identifies 15 supposed serious liabilities faced by the Bank .
  • Another page “Your Ideas” cleverly suggests new ideas like startup business loans for poor people; honesty and fairness; no more rollover fees for IRAs; no fees for withdrawals; and “reasonable” not exorbitant pay for bankers. After just one day there were 255 “ideas.”
  • A fourth page “Get Creative” encourages the public to create ads to tell the world about the bank, complete with fonts, logos, Photoshop files, templates and a “gallery” of more than 450 submissions after just one day. Many feel staged.

Bank of America has not responded yet in its newsroom to the phony PR campaign and has commented only to a few major media pressing hard for reaction.

The Yes Lab displayed another phony news release masquerading as a BofA response to the campaign. At first glance it feels legitimate until you read more carefully to see the parody.

Here’s where you get into very interesting strategic PR territory. BofA believes it can weather this fake PR storm by not acknowledging it. Activists are filling the information gap.

With all the negative PR the bank has had in the past two years, it may have been smarter to acknowledge it with a sense of humor and a reassurance BofA is financially solid and working hard to serve its customers. A simple on-the-record response would eliminate a comment vacuum and reinforce the bank’s message.

I suspect the beleaguered bank was preoccupied with releasing its Q1 2012 financial results which had some positive news. The activists’ timing was deliberate and impeccable.

Any PR pro would be hard-pressed to create a more credible-looking, impactful and creative campaign. I don’t agree with the activists but I admire their audacity.

At the very least, this one will be a strategic PR, crisis management and social media case study in PR textbooks and classrooms for years.

How do you think BofA should respond? Can they win with an “ignore them” strategy? Will the anti-BofA campaign have legs? How would you rate the activist campaign?

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Author:
 Jeff DomanskyAPR is a PR and social PR strategist. He blogs at The PR Coach and you can also follow him on Twitter @theprcoach or Scoop.it (PR 2.0 Insight).

More Phony Bank of America PR Campaign Reading

Bank of America is subject of phony news release, website [Charlotte Observer]
Bank of America Now Target of Fake Press Release [The Wall Street Journal]
Bank of America Sees Real Profits Following Fake Campaign [The Atlantic Wire]
Dow Jones Carries Phony Bank of America Release [O’Dwyer’s]
Fake Bank Of America Website, YourBofA, Asks People How They Would Run BofA [Huffington Post]
How OWS Plans to Take Down Bank of America [truthdig]
The Fake Press Release [Forbes]
The OccupyUSA Blog for Thursday (April 19), With Frequent Updates [The Nation]
The Yes Lab claims credit for fake Bank of America website [Charlotte Business Journal]
Whose bank? Our bank! The Yes Men explain their prank on BofA [RT]

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