The maturation of the Internet should have been the golden era of the public relations industry. Prior to the widespread use of the Internet, PR firms had to inordinately rely on the mainstream media to communicate client messages to broad-based audiences. Relying on reporters was a dangerous and often difficult process; journalists controlled the bat and ball and they all too often were reckless and arrogant in how they wielded their power.
The Internet provided an opportunity to level the playing field. The rise of the blogosphere quickly cut the media down to size and exposed their rampant irresponsibility. Mainstream publications and broadcast outlets were held to an unprecedented accountability standard and many reporters crumbled under the scrutiny. An untold number of prominent media stories have been retracted because of eagle-eyed bloggers.
Harnessed correctly, the Internet can be a powerful marketing tool, but it’s also an effective vehicle for fraudsters, flim-flam artists, and for companies with no qualms about using deception and unscrupulous tactics to win over customers. It’s in the best interest of the PR industry to promote and adhere the highest standards of ethics in Internet marketing. The more credible the medium, the more potent its efficacy.
Sadly, the PR industry has contributed mightily to the corruption of the Internet. One of the biggest global agencies was caught years ago for running the “Wal-Marting Across America” blog, supposedly penned by a couple of customer enthusiasts who turned out to have been shills paid by the PR firm. The person responsible for overseeing the Wal-Mart account was recently deemed one of the most influential professionals in the industry, underscoring that there are no material career consequences for dishonest or questionable practices.
Some PR firms also were caught secretly paying off or bribing bloggers with products to post positive reviews, but fortunately a PR blog named “Strumpette” was quite aggressive about exposing the practice and some industry leaders became quite vocal about condeming the practice. While blogger payola has not yet been eradicated, fortunately most recent exposed incidents didn’t involve PR firms.
Nevertheless, some PR firms still can’t resist employing deception as part of their “strategic” arsenal. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission settled charges with a California PR firm for having its employees “pose as ordinary consumers posting game reviews at the online iTunes store, and not disclosing that the reviews came from paid employees working on behalf of the developers.”
Rather than taking the high road and saying the firm settled the matter in support of the FTC’s desire to ensure greater transparency on the Internet, the company’s owner haughtily dismissed the agency’s concerns as a “frivolous matter”, saying they only agreed to settle to save on the cost of litigation. Perhaps most disappointing of all was the disclosure in the New York Times that the deceptive reviews in question were written and posted by interns. Thus, a new generation of PR professionals was taught that deception is an acceptable communications tool. That’s a toxic message to teach impressionable college students interested in pursuing a PR career.
Sadly, there is no shortage of PR firms who will welcome the skill-set these interns acquired. It’s an open secret that other PR firms regularly engage in having employees post reviews on behalf of clients. Let’s hope that the head of the FTC’s advertising practices division successfully eradicates the practice. Now there would be someone I could get behind as deserving of the “most influential leaders in the PR industry” title.