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How Russia Used PR To Hack Our Election

A remarkable aspect of Russian propaganda efforts around our elections is how well they follow the modern social media and public relations playbook. Maybe because the news has come out in steady drips over two years, I hadn’t put the full picture together. But today’s story about the latest report to the Senate Intelligence Committee hit me in a new way. It revealed a sophisticated influence campaign by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) that blended paid, earned, owned, and shared content on multiple social platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and Instagram. That’s right, it’s the PESO content model, and it’s powerful.

For brands, PESO works well because it combines the four major types and channels of content – paid, earned, shared, and owned – and offers a blueprint for how they can amplify one another. Originally developed by Gini Dietrich, PESO offers a memorable acronym for PRs and a reasonable model for integrated communications campaigns in the social media age. Unfortunately, it works equally well for disinformation operations.

“E” is for earned media, but this was fake

Take the Russia influence efforts and what we now know. First came revelations of “fake news” items shared on Facebook and other platforms. The fake stuff was intentionally false, but it masqueraded as legitimate news content, or what PR people call “earned media.” That’s the “E” in PESO. The problem, of course, was that the stories were from fictitious “news” sites with innocuous-sounding names like the Empire Herald or USA Daily Info.

As a heavy consumer of (real) political content, I admit I never saw the fake news crisis coming. The headlines blaring that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, or that the Pope endorsed Trump seemed laughable. Yet, powered by the social algorithms that reward outrage, those stories quickly racked up millions of engagements, and not just by people who thought they were funny.
Check another PESO box there – the “S” for “shared.” Third-party content that’s widely shareable on major social platforms, maybe by people we trust, is the great amplifier for earned media.

Paid media accelerated social sharing

Another shoe dropped with the news that Russian trolls had bought political ads on Facebook. After initially calling it a “pretty crazy idea,” Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Russian operatives had bought targeted ads on the platform. The initially reported budget of $100,000 was so small as to seem paltry. Yet, as every good PR person knows, earned and shared content can be effectively driven and amplified by paid ads — the “P” in PESO.

As it turned out, the Facebook ads of 2016 were a small part of a more widespread and well coordinated paid media effort. The February 2018 indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three other entities accused of defrauding the U.S. government by interfering with our political process, reports a healthy paid budget of $1.25M per month, with state-of-the-art reporting on shares, engagements and other interactions. The paid propaganda plot thickened.

The recent report offers even more insight into the broader disinformation campaign. It targeted African-Americans with inflammatory stories designed to suppress voting in their communities and among progressives. The numbers are impressive, and the report suggests that Russia’s use of Instagram has been underreported. At over 187 million engagements on Insta (compared to only 76.5 million for Facebook), it may have been more effective than Facebook for the IRA. Sound familiar?

“Owned” media channels muddy the waters

Then there’s the “O” in PESO, for owned media, or content openly created and distributed by its source. Its equivalent here would be Russia’s own public statements and the commentary and reporting on RT, the international television network funded by the Russian government, and similar news agencies. What’s most interesting to me about these official channels is how well they complement other, less obvious information efforts. The content supports Russia’s goals to promote a selective view of Western democracies and sow doubt about U.S. government views, motives and actions on a host of geopolitical issues. As one observer puts it, “That mixture of genuine and guff leaves you baffled and disoriented, which, I guess, is the point.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so disturbed that a foreign power is pursuing an influence operation by using modern PR and PESO tactics. The seeds of the PR industry, after all, were sown during World War II. Two grandfathers of PR — Dan Edelman and Harold Burson – got their start in U.S. wartime communications. Burson was even part of the American Forces Network where he covered the Nuremberg trials. PR is literally the outgrowth of those wartime propaganda efforts.

Political propaganda and dirty tricks are as old as time, and I recognize that media channels and social tactics are just that — information channels, neither good nor evil. But it’s disheartening to recognize how tools and tactics you use every day can be used to subvert the very truth and principles we as communicators take for granted.

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