British author J.K. Rowling apparently died earlier this week. Fellow writer John Le Carre broke the news on his Twitter feed, saying that her death was the result of an accident. Mysterious indeed, but all the more confusing as J.K. Rowling is still alive and well, and Le Carre doesn’t generally update his followers on matters regarding Ms. Rowling. But the news went viral anyway and was retweeted hundreds of times, even appearing on a Chilean television broadcast. What was going on?
The not-so-elaborate hoax was the brainchild of Tommaso De Benedetti, who, when not faking Tweets, teaches literature in Rome. De Benedetti has previously killed off numerous celebrities, including Fidel Castro and the Pope, simply by saying it has happened. His fake Tweets have highlighted the ease with which a rumor can spread. Setting up bogus Tweets such as John Le Carre’s, he then spreads his “news.” His point? Retweets by the media become “fact,” despite never being independently verified.
De Benedetti describes his experiments as “games” that prove the media needs to carry out the necessary checks. He told the media that his “aim is to show that Twitter has become a news agency – the least reliable in the world.” But his efforts also demonstrate other basic learning points.
THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Tommaso De Benedetti. Anything can be true at any given time, provided the brand is credible and no details are given.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: If you want something to be true, provide crumbs, not a banquet. Debenedetti makes the valuable but predictable pitch that quality journalism requires independent sourcing. What is more surprising is that breaking news works best when it is less than the 140 characters required by Twitter. Details are not needed; all that is necessary is a name with brand recognition that has authority, and a grabbing headline. A useful rule for PRs wanting to make an instant splash; anything is now possible.
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