Fake reviews hurt every PR practitioner

August 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm 4 comments

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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Entry filed under: Ethics in Public Relations, PRSA, reputation. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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4 Comments

  • 1. Arthur Yann  |  August 31, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Doug, thanks for a thoughtful and spot-on post. While Reverb said it did nothing illegal, that’s not the point. It was unethical. Not only that, it was easily correctable, simply by disclosing the client connection. You see PR pros doing this in their Facebook updates all the time.

    BTW, if your readers are interested, here’s the take of Gary McCormick, writing for the PR Breakfast Club blog: http://prbreakfastclub.com/2010/08/30/prsa-unethical-reviews.

    PRSA also has issued a Professional Standards Advisory — a periodic update to the PRSA Code, based on evolving technology and changing social and professional mores — on this exact subject, which can be accessed here:
    http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/ProfessionalStandardsAdvisories/PS809.pdf

    Cheers!

    Arthur Yann is VP, Public Relations, for PRSA.

    • 2. dougtheprguy  |  August 31, 2010 at 12:33 pm

      Thanks for the reply. I definitely want to hear what Gary has to say and will take a look at that and the standards update later today.

  • 3. Ethan Fenichel  |  September 2, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Of course what Reverb is doing is becoming social marketing standards. False advertising on the web, especially the social web, is just par for the course. Then again, it is one of the longest legacies of the web to have unqualified opinion sharing. It is the reason the web is so hard to index and categorize. Are you going to believe that your company’s website is really the single greatest source for (whatever)? Anyhow, if you think Reverb is bad, you should see what Yelp, who is becoming completely ubiquitous got caught doing. I don’t have time to find the article, but I know it is out there and it was enough that I’m not using the service anymore.

    • 4. dougtheprguy  |  September 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

      Scary thought, but that is one of the problems, whether its “reviews” or “news.” The First Amendment, which never anticipated the Internet as the ultimate “marketplace of ideas,” bars us from stifling these sites and these posts. As responsible citizens and responsible consumers we have an obligation to seek all sides of an argument before forming an opinion. How often does that happen? There are sites that speciallize in giving voice to angry consumers. They come up in a search but never give the target of the posters anger an opportunity to respond. As a corporate communicator, it’s one of the reasons I monitor Twitter and do a genera Web search on our name regularly.

      Reverb is accused of taking advantage of this whole situation. Those of us who are professional communicators have an ethical obligation to post the truth (didn’t your mother tell you to all ways tell the truth? In your case, Ethan, I know she did…but that’s the basis of an ethical argument) and to identify our interest in the post. That’s how we protect credibility and at some point, my guess is that those searching for information on the Web will demand such information before they consider comments and information they find there.


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