Archive for August, 2010

Fake reviews hurt every PR practitioner

Special thanks go out to Reverb Communications for apparently allowing its staff to post fake reviews, thus making my job and that of every other ethical pubic relations practitioner that much harder.

According to an article (http://tinyurl.com/2dcuood)  in the Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog,  Reverb agreed “to settle with the FTC over charges that its staff posed as members of the public to fake reviews of video games developed by its clients. The company and its owner were accused of engaging in deceptive advertising by having staff post game reviews without disclosing that they were hired to promote the games and that they often received a percentage of sales.”

For a minute, put aside the fact that no company wants to tangle with a federal agency. The Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America ( http://tinyurl.com/yfp2ean) is pretty specific about this sort of thing. “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public,” it says. One of the guidelines says a member shall “be honest and accurate in all communications.” Another says that a practitioner shall “be honest and accurate in all communications,” “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” “disclose financial interest in a client’s organization” and “avoid deceptive practices.”

Do I need to burn pixels explaining those things in terms of not disclosing that you’re getting paid to write good reviews? PRSA member or not, do I need to burn more pixels explaining how damaging this is to the credibility of that public relations firm, its clients (all of them) and, by extension, everyone one of us who acts as a counselor on matters of public relations.

One of my jobs is to gather advertorials by customers. It’s the fun part of my job because these are all people who have purchased a home and they love the home. We don’t pay these people. We don’t allow our associates to do advertorials unless we disclose they are associates. And we never make up the people, although it’s been suggested.

But the next time I go into a meeting, and someone tells me to make up a homeowner or pay a homeowner to give a specific message, and I tell them it’s unethical and illegal, what’s to stop them from waving Reverb’s efforts in front of me?

Reverb says its staff posted the reviews after purchasing the games with their own money and the reviews reflected their own enthusiasm. Sorry. Doesn’t wash: Working ethically is an individual act, albeit made easier in a culture of ethical behavior. So if your people are working unethically, Reverb and anyone else thinking of taking this stand, it’s because you’re failing to educate them and failing to demand high ethical standards.

The Bulldog Reporter quotes Mary Engle, director of the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices as saying, “Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing, need to abide by the long-held principles of truth in advertising. Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers.”

Those rules of law apply to all of us who offer an opinion – ours or a customer’s – to the public as a way of positioning our clients. To me, though, the impact of the PRSA Code of Ethics is even more important: It’s about keeping communications and dialog open, credible and truthful. When you’re talking about a product, you’re talking about reputation and sales.

Important stuff. But take this tactic to the next step, and you may be taking about issues that pertain to the very foundation of democracy.

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August 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm 4 comments

My Turn: NYC Mosque Debate Has Some Scary Implications for PR

I’ve been watching the debate over the NYC mosque with increasing frustration and disgust, exacerbated by news reports that people think that Pres. Barrack Obama is a Muslim and that his own church-going habits aren’t real.

 Who cares? Is he doing the right thing for the country?

 The whole mosque debate is absurd. If the zoning laws are OK with it, there is no reason that a group of Muslims can’t worship wherever they please, providing the State and City of New York has no legitimate reason for them not to.  This racially motivated attempt to block the mosque belongs in Selma, Ala., circa 1960, not here and now. We’re playing into the hands of Islamic and American Right Wing extremists.

As a PR guy, this has other scary overtones. Decision-making in a democracy is supposed to be about the intelligent exchange of ideas (stop laughing). Over the past few years, discussion, ethics and facts have been replaced with volume and innuendo. He who shouts loudest must be right. So those who aren’t so sure go along, making the volume higher. Reason, facts and morality get drowned out and we make dumb decisions. It’s plain scary.

While the mosque debate may be the loudest argument going on, it’s far from the only one. Many good public servants are finding themselves unemployed by groups using these tactics.

As a public relations person for a homebuilder, I see this tactic used regularly, if at a lower volume. The combination of statements at meetings and letters to the editor (had one the other day that talked about “all the government studies” – yeah? Show them to me!) are basically the same tactic. I’ve seen again and again opponents who don’t know the facts yell or write half truths and innuendos until the volume reaches  the point where it defeats sound judgment and, in some cases, the law. There’s oil leaching into one of New Jersey’s bays from a town that went that route rather than work with us.

I keep thinking of a profound line in Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” This latest trend of opinion influencing leverages that.  The media – traditional and social – exacerbates the problem, sometimes for readership, sometimes because reporters are caught up in it.

While we have to master the latest technology, maybe its time to also apply the original social media: community meetings, personal letters and other individual contact with persons. A person might listen and make a wise judgement. People, apparently, tend not to.  Who, for instance, is the face of New York City mosque? Perhaps if it had one, we’d be less afraid of it.

What do you think?

August 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

Troubled companies don’t have a PR problem. They have something much worse

The next person who reports about a company’s “public relations problem” is going to have a Doug problem on their hands…unless they’re talking about the company’s PR budget or something similar.

Over the past few months, hearing about BP’s public relations problem, Toyota’s public relations problem, some politician’s public relations gaffe and that actor’s or actress’s public relations nightmare has worn me out.

At best, these outfits and people have reputation problems. At worst, and more often, they have shoddy products, insulated executives who don’t know how to control their mouths, hands that accept money or other things that shouldn’t be accepted or a substance abuse or other problem. Or all of the above.

None of those constitute a public relations problem, although they are certainly challenges for the public relations practitioners handling the mess. Once things get started, I guess there are instances when a CEO doesn’t pay attention or understand what his PR practitioner is telling him. That, I guess, is a public relations problem, but not the way the media mean it.

Public relations is about establishing, enhancing and protecting reputations. It’s about establishing relationships between an organization and groups that impact that organization’s success. That means listening to both sides of that equation. It means telling the organization’s story the best way possible. And it’s about making sure both sides understand what the other side is doing. One of the ways we “talk to” the public is through the media, although nowadays, we’re just as likely to use social media tools.

No matter how well we do that, we can’t fix an assembly line that knowingly turns out cars with a defect or an outfit that fails to prepare for a technology failure. As much as we counsel executives on how to behave, we can’t overcome irresponsible behavior or statements. Those are not public relations problems. They’re much, much bigger issues.

I think we should start a movement: Every time a reporter writes about some organization’s screw-up and calls it a public relations problem, we should bury that reporter with emails and post cards explaining that when an organization or person acts stupidly or irresponsibly, it is not a public relations problem. Public relations practitioners, however, will use their insight and skills to help that company fix the problem – the root cause, not the appearance — and re-establish those relationships and, in the process, repair its reputation.

We as public relations practitioners should not sit by and let our craft be demeaned by allowing reporters and others to refer to irresponsibility as a public relations problem. Doing so creates a reputational issue for public relations practitioners.

August 4, 2010 at 10:30 pm 6 comments


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