Startup’s hoax backfires: 5 lessons

Belly Ballot said it would pay a new mom $5,000 to let the Internet name her baby, but it was a hoax. The startup is now in a reputation crisis. Brands, heed this advice.

A startup called Belly Ballot created a contest to pay an expectant mom $5,000 to let the Internet name her baby.

It goes something like this: Natasha Hill was having a hard time deciding on a name for her unborn child due in September. She wanted to start saving for college tuition before the baby was born, and had some credit card debt she wanted to wipe clean. So, she entered a contest to let strangers name her baby.

The catch was she only got the cash if she actually gave her child the name the Internet voted most popular.

The blogosphere was up in arms about it: “A real mom wouldn’t let complete strangers name her baby!” “Quick! Someone get her a baby name book!”

It turns out the blogosphere was right. A real mom wouldn’t let strangers name her baby.

Belly Ballot hoax

Natasha Hill is an actress Belly Ballot hired to create publicity (and she did; stories ran on The Today Show, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, MSN and blogs galore).

She’s not even pregnant.

It was a hoax.

When asked why Belly Ballot did it this way, founder Lacey Moler said, “We came up with the idea for the contest and knew it would be controversial. We’re a startup and we wanted to control the situation. We never thought it would get this big.”

I’ve read just about every story I can find about this, including the story of how Belly Ballot was created. The founders seem like genuinely good people who have a cool idea for a company and want it to succeed.

But either they don’t have a communications expert on their team, or who they have is inexperienced or unethical. I prefer to think they just need someone on their advisory board who knows how to help startups gain communication traction.

Brand awareness and reputation management

Here are some tips for Moler, her team and any organization looking to use social media, traditional media and events to create brand awareness and build a reputation:

1. Nothing beats hard work.

Creating a fake contest, announcing a fake winner, and not thinking about what will happen if you get caught is the wrong way to go about things.

There isn’t an easy button.

By doing it this way, Belly Ballot undermined the trust it managed to build in a short time. No one will want to cover its story for a very long time now.

2. You can’t control the situation.

I hear this a lot from business owners: “We won’t do it because we can’t control it.”

Look, you’ve never been in control. You just had the perception of being in control because no one could talk back. But now they can, and they have huge megaphones.

If you’re going to grow a business, you have to use the Web—not necessarily social media, but the Web—and you can’t control it. Instead, control your operations, culture and talent. The rest will come.

3. Social media is unkind.

If you lie, fake it or create an untrue story, someone will find you out. It isn’t like the old days where it would take years for someone to figure out what’s really going on. With all the information we have at our fingertips, people will find you out quickly and spread it like wildfire.

4. If there are no entries, then there are no entries.

There are plenty of contests that just don’t fly. I’ve been involved in some of them, and I’m sure you have, too. Clients or bosses will want you to either choose a winner from current customers or, like this story, hire someone to play the winner.

Don’t do it! Don’t give in!

It’s not ethical, and the publicity you gain won’t be worth the bad publicity you have to manage when someone finds you out.

5. Be ethical to a fault.

Someone might accuse me of being too naive or a Pollyanna with this one, but I really believe honesty is the best policy. Don’t create whisper campaigns about your competitors, lie to journalists and bloggers, or create something out of nothing. Spin sucks.

What advice would you give the Belly Ballot team?

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

(Image via)

Topics: PR

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