Is it ethical for a PR agency to smear a competitor?
The question came up after a recent report in The New York Times about Facebook’s handling of its PR problems over the past three years. Its strategies are right there in the title – Delay, Deny, and Deflect: How Facebook Leaders Fought Through The Crisis. The picture is one of a company doing its damnedest to work all contacts, tap all allies, and thwart all critics to salvage its reputation.
Facebook’s posture under pressure should surprise no one. But an interesting aspect of it is the role of its PR firm. It brought on PR agency Definers Public Affairs to run political-style oppo against competitors like Google and Apple. Definers also sought to paint Facebook’s critics in a negative light. In a particularly distasteful move, the agency promoted questionable research that linked billionaire George Soros with anti-Facebook groups. The implication was that there were astroturfed protests bankrolled by someone with a political agenda.
The rationale for the down-and-dirty oppo PR is summed up in an earlier interview with Definers founder Tim Miller. Miller claims that a company’s goal should be to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.” Miller’s sales pitch to Silicon Valley execs, whom he views as “surprisingly unsophisticated” at using their own communications tools, seems to be that good will is a zero-sum game. If you lose, I win.
In my experience, Tim Miller’s view couldn’t be more wrong. When you impugn a competitor, you can easily risk tarring your entire category with one big, ugly brush. Oppo is particularly perilous in Big Tech, where the industry has experienced a steep reputation decline. Silicon Valley was once synonymous with innovation, ideas, and the American dream. Today the tech giants are being blamed for income inequality, housing shortages, infringements on privacy, and our collective attention deficit, among other social ills.
True to form, Facebook took swift action after the NYT article posted. Within hours, it announced it had cut ties with Definers, while simultaneously defending its work with the agency as completely legitimate and aboveboard. But when the heat is on, it’s easy to blame the agency.
So, was Definers ethical? Many PR battles are waged in hotly competitive categories, and the line between aggressive communications and an outright smear campaign can be blurry. As more details emerge, it seems like they did go too far.
But firing the agency won’t help Facebook much, or at least it shouldn’t. Facebook was calling the shots. And this isn’t the first time it has been called out for questionable PR tactics. As Bob Pickard of Signal Leadership Communications reminded us, Facebook was caught running a “whisper campaign” against Google in 2011. It hired Burson Marsteller to pitch bloggers on Google’s invasions of user privacy. It’s an accusation that seems almost quaint post-Cambridge Analytica, but the furor in PR circles after a blogger posted the agency’s “secret” anti-Google pitch was as much about incompetence as ethics. It was a clumsy, tone-deaf approach to the then-burgeoning blogger community.
As for the ethics of spreading competitive “dirt,” most PRs would agree that the line is crossed when misleading or false information is used. Apart from that, things get murky. Most communicators I know would recoil at sharing information about a competitor that’s poorly sourced, highly sensitive, or truly personal in nature. But even for someone not concerned about ethics, a smear campaign is a stupid strategy.
The first rule of reputation PR is not to embarrass your client. Do no harm, in other words. Even in bareknuckled political contests, such conduct can easily backfire, and it’s truly not the norm for mainstream PR practice. And that’s really the bottom line for professional communicators. As that 2011 Burson team learned, if you throw mud, you’re likely to get dirty.