Corvette recovery draws online gawkers, cartoonists, profit seekers -- even doubters

There's nothing like a good old-fashioned Internet conspiracy theory.

After a cavernous sinkhole swallowed eight of the National Corvette Museum's prized gems last month, museum management decided to release as much information as possible and use social media to spread the word.

Museum staffers have bombarded Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram with photos and videos since Day One as they put on a master class in crisis management.

But some in the online community still aren't convinced.

A conspiracy theorist has posted a series of YouTube videos saying the sinkhole is a hoax. He believes it's just "another" fake news story.

Katie Frassinelli, the museum's marketing and communications manager, responded: "I just think it's absurd that anybody would think that we could pull something like that off."

Frassinelli said that major news agencies such as CNN and CBS have reported from the site. "CBS This Morning" was there today.

She added, "I'm very flattered that people would think that we would have the time, money and brainpower to fabricate something like this."

She invited skeptics to the museum to view the sinkhole.

New audience

With a gaping 40-foot-wide hole that's around 30 feet deep staring museum managers in the face, a defensive approach in which they shared few details would've been understandable.

After all, a spectacular story such as this can take on a life of its own in the social sphere.

By giving wide access to updates, images and videos about the sinkhole, conspiracy theorists can run wild and try to discredit every piece of information. Or Photoshop experts can grab a few pictures and do their handiwork, which could yield thousands of potentially embarrassing tweets and Facebook postings.

But the museum's openness combined with the fan fervor surrounding the Corvette -- it has one of the auto industry's most loyal and enthusiastic owner groups -- have created the perfect social media storm.

Soon after the sinkhole devastated the site, the museum provided dozens of photos of the casualties on Google+ with background information for each model that was accessible to anyone.

When crews began pulling the wounded Vettes from the hole on Monday, workers provided rapid-fire updates on the museum's social media accounts. Images of the 2009 ZR1 Blue Devil and 1993 Ruby Red 40th anniversary edition generated thousands of Facebook likes, shares and Twitter retweets.

Since the incident, the museum's Facebook fan page has drawn more than 10,000 new "likes," while its Twitter account has attracted upwards of 1,000 followers.

With so many people consuming the sinkhole content on Facebook, the page's average audience reach -- normally around 150,000 at a given time -- peaked at 1.5 million at the height of the frenzy. One of its Facebook postings showing the cars, which looked like toys in the crater, had an audience reach of 723,000.

On YouTube, the top sinkhole video has surpassed 7 million views. In addition, video crews from the Discovery Channel, PBS and Bader TV, a company hired by GM, are on site filming and have agreed to release footage to the media.

Museum staffers are maintaining a lighthearted mood with their posts. Frassinelli said they're trying to make the best of a trying situation.

She said she doesn't mind the photos people share with the museum that make light of the disaster.

In one that Frassinelli sent to Automotive News, someone drew a comic of a Corvette falling into the living room of Satan himself -- who then thanks God. She also said there's a parody Twitter account dedicated to the sinkhole that's good for a few laughs.

"It's like the Jimmy Buffett song, 'Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.' If we don't laugh, we'll all go insane," said Frassinelli, who said that people have donated $30,000 for sinkhole relief. "It's been really heavy around here, especially the first few days after this happened. After the initial shock, we've had all kinds of funny posts that popped up on the Internet. You just have to laugh at it because you can't change it."

Sinkhole capitalism

Some companies see dollar signs amid the rubble.

Numerous media distributors have approached the museum hoping to license pictures and footage of the devastation and make a quick dollar -- while giving the museum part of the cut.

But that goes against the museum's mission to remain open and honest with the public while providing free access to the latest recovery information.

Once the companies are told the content has already been released, Frassinelli said the distributors persist, claiming that anyone who shares it can be forced to take it down.

"We say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" she said. "That's not something we're interested in doing. We want people to have all the access they want."

The museum also passed on the chance to secure advertising for its sinkhole-related YouTube videos.

"We do have videos on YouTube that we monetize. In the case of the sinkhole, we wanted to make all pictures, video and content available to anyone who wants it for free. We didn't want any of it to be sold. We didn't want anyone to profit off of it," she said.

"I know that we probably missed out on thousands and thousands of dollars by not having advertising on there. It was something that our management team felt very strongly about."

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86

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