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It was the best of times for Laboratoires Berden: a CEO who supported social commitment, a portfolio of interesting products, job applicants by the bucketload — not to mention a host of fierce competitors on social networks. But Berden was actually a fictitious company created at HEC Paris for and by students as a case study. Ludovic François, the man who co-created Berden, sees his invention as a symbol of the current wave of fake news, which leaves nothing to chance and from which you urgently need to protect yourself against.

 

Biography

Ludovic François

With a PhD in management science, Ludovic François has been an affiliate professor at HEC Paris since 2001. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, François advises senior executives on crisis management, influence communication, and reputation management. He is also director of two book collections, published by Éditions L’Harmattan, on management science and economic intelligence research.

 

His name was Eric Dumonpierre and he was the CEO of Laboratoires Berden, which sold an anti-obesity drug known as Mutorex. A committed ecologist appreciated by his coworkers, he was also a responsible, respected boss. But in the mid-2000s Dumonpierre’s fine reputation began to falter under the weight of a series of embarrassing revelations: the company had concealed the drug’s side effects; there were stories of child labor; and some executives committed suicide. It was a typical rise-and-fall tale, except that neither Dumonpierre nor Berden ever existed. “This whole story forms the narrative thread of a seminar we organized for students at HEC Paris for nearly a decade as part of a course on business reputation and crisis management,” François explains. In 2005, the first year of the seminar, Web 2.0 and social networks were still in their infancy but, as François continues, “I felt these tools were going to upend traditional patterns of communication and could provide a new means for expressing manipulative techniques. This was the area I wanted to explore, designing a case study to see whether it was possible to create an environment that would be believable enough to disseminate false information.”

When fiction cannibalizes reality

The three-month exercise followed the same pattern every year, with students divided into different groups: there was the fictional laboratory; one group defending its reputation and another attacking it; a consulting firm and an investment fund; and patients and anti-globalization protestors. The attackers were prepared in advance but not the defenders. The attack team would launch an assault — backed up a mass of blog posts, fake websites, and spurious testimonials — while the defenders had to react. At the end of the seminar, the web analytics from both sides were totted up, and those with the most references per page were declared the winners. “When I started the program, not all my colleagues agreed about its value,” François says with a smile. But there was broad support from students, and the results of their work exceeded expectations. The ecosystem of false information they were building quickly spread. In the first year, it was already possible to find search-engine references to Eric Dumonpierre via generic keywords such as “CSR CEO.” Five years later, the top link for the search “CSR executive” led to an entirely invented article about Berden’s boss. “We also received real CVs from real people who wanted to work with Berden, and even a letter from a well-established laboratory accusing us of marketing Mutorex without the proper authorization.”

Rhetoric, legitimacy, and credibility: tried and tested recipes for success

Excerpt from Business Digest N°295, April 2019

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False information vs genuine reputation : take action now

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