Are PR people unethical? I don’t think so. But our profession is dogged by the stereotype of the fast-talking spinmeister, or the unscrupulous flack. Recently a small but troubling study caught the industry’s attention at the International Public Relations Research Symposium. Anonymous interviews with more than 20 high-level PR executives in South Africa revealed that the PR executives admit they lie to the news media they work with, as well as subordinates and bosses.
“Lying to Protect the Organization: An Occupational Hazard?” revealed that 17 of the participants had lied as a matter of course in doing their jobs and that 16 said they would do it again. The pull-out quote – “Of course I lie — I lie because my CEO expects it” – from one participant made me cringe, evoking a shady Doug Stamper sent to do dirty work for a vile boss.
I’m overdramatizing after binge-watching Season 3 of “House of Cards,” of course. And 17 PR people in South Africa is a pretty tiny sample. But there are other, larger studies that show problems. Earlier this year, video communications company D S Simon reported that 90% of digital journalists said they have been misled by PR pros, pointing to a problem with proper disclosure in video content distributed to media.
Lack of transparency can clearly do damage to the PR-media relationship and to brands, as seen in the Volkswagen emissions test debacle. Millions of dollars are on the line and the reputations of brands can hang in the balance. The studies made me think about other embarrassing gaffes and ethical breaches committed in the name of PR, which are often uncovered and – thankfully – shut down.
Deceptive stunts. The Cartoon Network’s 2007 “Boston Bomb Scare” is infamous in this category. It involved scary-looking LED signs placed in random locations in Boston as part of a guerrilla marketing promotion for a new show. When they were reported as possible explosive devices, the campaign was scrapped. But at least Cartoon Network never intended to scare the public. This week, the game Call of Duty posted 20 apparently “live” tweets from a real-looking news aggregator Twitter feed that reported a terrorist attack in Singapore. The stunt was a social misfire.
Astroturfing. What we today call astroturfing goes back at least to the unofficial “father of modern public relations,” Edward Bernays, who in 1929 hired women to march in support of their right to smoke for a tobacco client. For a latter-day example of fake citizenry, look no further than “Walmarting Across America” back in 2006. What seemed like a celebration of the retailer by a couple of superfans traveling across the country in an RV turned out to be a plan by Edelman PR, who hired the cross-country team as paid endorsers without disclosing that fact. The result was an industry scandal and embarrassment for Wal-Mart.
Sock puppetry. It’s the digital equivalent of astroturfing. One case that shook up the PR biz involved Reverb PR’s fake reviews for videogame clients, which ended in a settlement with the FTC. But my favorite example is that of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who posted pseudonymous comments in praise of his own executive performance – and even his hairstyle – on Yahoo stock market message boards.
The faux hack. This one’s tired and especially annoying in my book, because it trivializes real concerns. Last year Chipotle drew attention with a series of bizarre tweets, then admitted to staging the hack to mark an anniversary 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 inevitable. Before the Super Bowl, a few brands claim that they’re outraged that the ads they submitted were too shocking/racy/controversial for whatever network to air on game day. Fortunately, the offending ads are available on YouTube for all to see! Some are established advertisers looking for extra spin, like GoDaddy, but many are smaller players who don’t have a Super-sized ad budget anyway. A tired and transparent end-run that’s not even interesting.
Social hijacking. It’s not a lie, but it is a PR sin. These include people or brands who invite digital hijacking with ill-advised Twitter chats or other social media promotions, like the Goldman Sachs Twitter IPO conversation that was torpedoed before it began. One example is 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 as old as the (Hollywood) hills. The “showmance” and its counterpart, the faux feud. These are arguably entertaining sins committed in the name of PR, and even today, they sell newspapers and drive web traffic. Were Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really an item? What about the bad blood between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift? Donald Trump and Just About Everyone?
We’ll never know for sure, but for ethical PR pros, it’s better not to go there.