Belly Ballot Hoax- Communication Gone WrongThis is a couple of weeks old, but I can’t stop thinking about it…

A start-up 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 unborn child, which is due in September. She also had some credit card debt she wanted to wipe clean and start saving for college tuition before the baby was born. So she entered a contest to let total strangers name her baby.

The catch? She only gets the cash if she actually gives her child the name the Internet voted most popular.

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

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

Belly Ballot Hoax

Natasha Hill is an actress hired by Belly Ballot to create publicity (and that they did, starting with The Today Show and growing into New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, MSN, and blogs galore) and she’s not even pregnant.

Nope. Not pregnant. It was a hoax.

When asked why they did it this way, founder Lacey Moler said, “We came up with the idea for the contest and we knew it would be controversial. We’re a start-up 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. I’ve read the story of how Belly Ballot was created. The founders seem like genuinely good people who have a cool idea for a company and just want it to succeed.

But either they don’t have a communications expert on their team or on their advisory board or who they have either isn’t experienced enough yet or is unethical. I prefer to think they just need someone on their advisory board who knows how to help start-ups gain communication traction.

Brand Awareness and Reputation Management

Some tips for Lacey, her team, and any other organization looking to use social media, traditional media, and events to create brand awareness and build your 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 has undermined the trust they had managed to build in a very short time and no one will want to cover their story for a very long time.
  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 so 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 to do it (not necessarily social, but the web) and you can’t control that. Instead, control your operations, your culture, and your talent. The rest will come.
  3. Social media is unkind. If you lie, fake it, or create an untrue story, you will be found out. Every time. 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, you will be found out quickly and it will spread like wildfire.
  4. If there are no entries, there are no entries. There are plenty of contests that just don’t fly. I’ve been involved in some of them. 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, it’s not right, and the publicity you’ll gain won’t be worth the bad publicity you have to manage when you’re found out.
  5. Always be ethical…to a fault. I will get accused 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, don’t lie to journalists and bloggers, and don’t create something out of nothing. Spin Sucks.

Perhaps there is a second blog post in what Lacey and her team do now with all this reputation management they have to do.

Now I leave it in your court. What advice would you give the Belly Ballot team?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich