Web of Lies: Astroturfing Threatens The PR Business

Astroturfing is like the underbelly of the PR business – large, hidden, and when it pops out, really ugly. A decade ago, that kind of  fake grassroots campaigning was at the edge of public relations, and it happened primarily in politics. Today, the rise of social media has put a new spin on astroturfing, with faux reviews posted all over the Web. And, it’s more closely associated with what many of us in PR do on a daily basis

That’s why the recent settlement between the FTC and Reverb, the PR firm caught trying to game iTunes ratings with reviews by its own staff, is actually good for our industry. An expert quoted by the New York Times puts it more strongly. He says the settlement might be useful to PR firms who want to “resist clients who demand they play dirty.”

Wow. So, who is really responsible here? In this case, it seems like no one twisted arms at Reverb. MobileCrunch actually outed the firm last year for openly marketing its team of review-posting interns to help developers promote gaming apps. In settling with Reverb last week, the FTC warned again that paid endorsers, PR firms, and anyone benefiting through “material connections” must disclose the relationship.

And, Reverb isn’t alone. Anyone who frequents Yelp, amazon, or iTunes has learned to be skeptical of, um, creative writing. Last year, executives at Belkin were busted by The Daily Background for offering payment for positive reviews of its products, and for writing reviews themselves under anonymous handles. Retailer Ann Taylor was let off with an FTC warning after offering gift cards to bloggers in exchange for coverage. That was a move in the right direction, since previous guidelines had emphasized individual blogger responsibility.

But, the FTC hasn’t gone far enough with the latest wrist slap. To date, the penalty for astroturfing has been modest public humiliation. Maybe the risk of reputation damage. But though the Reverb case has, in fact, reverberated throughout our industry, no fine was involved, and the consent decree implies no wrongdoing. A hefty payment would be a more powerful deterrent. And, though Reverb seems the bad actor here, why not follow the money to the companies who actually subsidize the payola?

Only with real teeth in its regulations will the FTC will root out the bad Apples (pun intended.) In the meantime, if you’re shopping for apps, or gadgets, or just about anything, check out The Consumerist’s list of 30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews. Let the buyer – and promoters – beware.


Astroturfing Is PR’s Dirty Battleground

If social media is the PR industry’s shiny new object, then fake-grassroots activities – known as “astroturfing” is its dirtiest open secret.

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t followed the policy details of the healthcare debate, yet. it’s driving me crazy. Not just the ballooning price of coverage for my employees. Or even the $4500 I spent on dental work…though I’m grinding my teeth just thinking about it. It’s the coverage and counter-coverage of massive fake-grassroots protests, and the fact that it’s routinely referred to as PR.

Of course, I mean the eruptions of emotion, even rage, by supposedly ordinary Americans at the Town Hall meetings about healthcare reform. Democracy in action, right? Free speech getting a workout? Maybe. But, connect the dots, and the outbursts seem a little staged. Often they’re managed by political operatives with a corporate or legislative agenda. Those innocuous-sounding citizen groups are nearly always funded by partisan organizations or corporate interests. Which is fine, as long as they’re legitimate, and we know exactly who’s getting their hands dirty down in the faux weeds. But too often, we don’t.

And, though it may seem minor in this context, the reputational impact on public relations makes me cringe. In MSNBC’s 10-minute segment about the firms and groups involved in the healthcare protests, they were dismissed over and over as “pure PR.”  If so, it’s the dark underbelly… huge, hidden, and when it pops up, really, really ugly.

There’s a big difference between legitimate grassroots mobilizing, and the synthetic stuff, I know.  And, I’ve worked with many lobbying and public affairs professionals who counsel their clients wisely and with integrity.  More importantly, this isn’t a partisan problem. No political party – or industry – has a monopoly on deception.  But, that’s precisely what bothers me. Faking it is so ubiquitous that even the watchdogs seem pretty powerless to do much about it.  The PRSA explicitly prohibits deceptive practices in its code of ethics, but how is the code enforced? Violators are subject to expulsion from PRSA. Does anyone think that’s a deterrent?

Call me naive, but I think it’s ironic that our industry obsesses about transparency, and regulators worry about Mommy bloggers who accept gifts, while millions are spent on subterranean tactics to change public opinion.  The only remedy I can think of, and the best reason for political and corporate interests not to engage in fakery, is that it’s so easily exposed….at least, I hope so.

The erosion of public trust in big media (and big government) that we blogged about so passionately following the death of Walter Cronkite may have a positive flipside. Everyone’s skeptical of just about everything today. I mean, even my 89-year-old mother knows a staged photo op when she sees one.
Still, it’s got to be someone’s job to try to unearth the truth, and that brings me back to the mainstream press. We need them, warts and all. We’d all better hope that those nonpartisan – or openly partisan, but skilled and honest – working journalists can keep on rooting out the real story, while those who engage in fakery will just dig themselves into a hole.