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When I first started in PR almost everyone who sent me a congratulatory note said “Welcome to the dark side”.
Putting aside questions of originality in the industry, I was firmly braced for the onslaught of challenges to my moral code.
I’m still waiting.
Instead, I had more conversations about whether an action crossed an ethical line than I’d ever had as a journalist. In journalism it simply never came up – we were doing the right thing simply by being there. Sticking our nose in where we weren’t wanted was evidence that we were doing good work. Yet we dealt with people’s reputations every day often in quite a cavalier way.
But there is a dark side to PR – a black-as-night side might be more appropriate – and it has reared its ugly head in recent weeks with the launch of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics.
While the topic is politicians and their manipulation of the blogosphere, several companies come in for questioning with regard to their alleged involvement with “cash for comment” style blogging.
The tobacco industry has been renowned for this kind of behaviour for years. Ever wonder why smoking rates in movies are so high? It’s no accident that characters portrayed on film are more likely to smoke than the average real world person – it’s so prevalent that the Centre for Disease Control reports on it annually.
It’s a temptation many companies find hard to resist. First, we’ll make a quick anonymous comment on a blog post supporting our view. What’s the harm in that? From there, it becomes an attack comment lambasting something we don’t like and from there it’s a muddy slide into posting whole opinion pieces disguised as independent thought.
In the US Wal-Mart is quite famous for this kind of rubbish. Not content with having a couple of ordinary folk travel the country to visit every Wal-Mart store (turned out they weren’t customers at all but PR folk in disguise), Wal-Mart even started its own grass-roots organisation “Working Families for Wal-Mart” to support its views on wage negotiations with staff.
The problem for Wal-Mart is of course that it’s famous for this. These kinds of things aren’t supposed to see the light of day, aren’t supposed to be revealed for the manipulation that they are, yet invariably someone lets the cat out of the bag and the damage to the brand is incalculable.
NZ Herald senior reporter David Fisher has published a piece about working with Whale Oil and the pros and cons of it all. It makes for sobering reading and I’d encourage all reporters to have a close look at their own contacts and their motivations.
But I would encourage everyone with an interest in PR and communications to also take a close look at the furore around Hager’s book. Laid out for all to see is what happens when you associate your brand with such activities.
I’ve had my own brush with such attack PR when TUANZ joined with a number of other associations to oppose changes to the Telco Act. Whale Oil published my name and phone number and suggested angry shareholders should ring me to tell me what they think. Only one couple did, taking it in turns to berate me for my views, and thankfully they were quite polite about it for the most part.
When I asked them why they’d invested all their money in Chorus shares (because their share broker told them to) they began to get a bit sheepish about it all and eventually agreed they might want to ring him and ask some pointed questions about his responsibility in all that.
If Whale Oil had his way it would have been much worse for me. I quite happily had my phone number online already but he’s clearly willing to go further and print someone’s home address and encourage death threats.
Brands need to be very careful if they want to go down this route. Word always gets out one way or another and if you’re not willing to stand up and put your name to something unpleasant, why would you pay someone else to say it on your behalf?
Online sites regularly gather IP addresses from those posting and even so-called ‘anonymous’ posts capture user data. I’ve discussed the issue with a number of online publishers who can clearly see where such anonymous posts are coming from and who take great delight in knowing which businesses are more likely to engage in this kind of behaviour.
Reputation is hard to quantify until you watch someone else hammering your brand day after day in the media. Once it’s gone, you’ll know exactly what it’s worth but by then it’s too late.
Paul Brislen is executive director at Anthem