ProPublica’s recent expose of The American Red Cross contained a colorful and symbolic detail that made PR agencies and their corporate communications counterparts cringe. The article reports that the organization drove around nearly-empty trucks in the wake of Hurricane Sandy “to be seen,” to give the impression that it was delivering aid when in fact it often wasn’t. It was all about the optics. The ARC has refuted many of the claims in the ProPublica piece, but it made me think about other “sins” that have been committed in the name of PR.
Astroturfing goes back at least to Edward Bernays, who hired women to march in support of their right to smoke in 1929 in a stunt he called “torches of freedom.” For a latter-day example of fake citizen experts, look no further than Edelman’s 2006 “Walmarting Across America,” a seemingly heartfelt celebration of the retailer by a pair of superfans who set off in an RV to visit every store and blog about the uniquely American experience. When they were exposed as paid endorsers, it turned into an industry scandal and a black eye for Wal-Mart. More recently, Airbnb was called out for front groups that promote liberalized home-sharing legislation in local markets.
It’s the digital equivalent of astroturfing, of course. A relatively recent case that shook up the PR biz involved Reverb PR’s fake reviews for videogame clients, which ended with an FTC settlement. Facebook has been accused of seeding fake comments on Reddit that praised its move to purchase virtual reality headset maker Oculus, but my favorites are the executive and celebrity posts, because they’re so embarrassing. The most memorable was Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s pseudonymous comments in praise of his own performance – and even his haircut – on Yahoo stock market message boards for nearly eight years.
The fake hack
This one’s particularly bad in my book, because it plays on common fears and trivializes them. Last year Chipotle drew attention with a series of nonsensical tweets from its official Twitter stream, then admitted to faking the hack as part of a 20th-anniversary scavenger hunt promotion. It’s a cousin to another sin committed in the name of PR, which is the fake ad ban.
The fake ban
It’s that time of year, alas. Before every Super Bowl, a few brands claim that the ads they submitted were too racy/edgy/controversial for the network to air on game day, but they’re available on YouTube for all to see. Some are established advertisers looking for extra spin, like GoDaddy, but many are smaller brands who wouldn’t be able to pony up a Super-sized ad budget in the first place. A tired play that’s just not very interesting anymore.
Stupid photo ops
Maybe these aren’t sins, but some have inflicted mortal wounds. Many today are too young to remember it in person, but the 1988 image of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in a military tank is a lesson for every political advance person working today. More recently, some blame Chris Christie for his famous Obama hug after Hurricane Sandy. But while that may have been ill-advised (look for it in the 2016 primaries if Christie runs), it was surely heartfelt, not staged.
Stunts gone wrong
These are legion, with the best known probably being the giant Snapple popsicle that melted and flooded New York’s Union Square — a mess, but harmless. The 2007 “Boston Bomb Scare” was more sinister; it happened when Cartoon Network’s placed odd-looking LED signs all over Boston as part of a guerrilla marketing promotion for a new show. (The Boston police thought they might be improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists.)
My personal favorite might have been the challenge issued by the CEO of identity protection company Lifelock. He featured his own social security number in outdoor and internet ads and challenged anyone to steal his identity. Inevitably, many did.
These include brands who invite digital hijacking through ill-advised Twitter chats or other social media promotions, like the Goldman Sachs Twitter IPO conversation that was torpedoed before it began. The latest example is probably that of comedian and accused serial rapist Bill Cosby, whose PR team invited fans to “meme him” on Twitter just as fresh assault allegations were starting to emerge. They got more than they bargained for.
The faux relationship
It’s old as the (Hollywood) hills. The Showmance. and its close cousin, the faux feud. These are arguably the most entertaining sins committed in the name of visibility, and even today, they sell newspapers and drive web traffic. Were Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really a couple? What about the bad blood between Madonna and Gaga? Donald Trump and Just About Anyone?
We’ll never know for sure.