So far I have used this blog to explore the potential benefits of the integrated use of social media channels by PR practitioners and have illustrated this with some specific social media campaigns. However, there is also a much murkier side to this type of PR activity that I think it is just as important to address as, just as has happened throughout the history of the PR industry, a few players are doing their best to ruin the good reputation and effectiveness of this activity in conducting practice of significantly questionable ethical standards.
Emerging activity which has come to be referred to as ‘flogging’, ‘astroturfing’ or ‘front grouping’ has involved PR practitioners exploiting the values of transparency, authenticity and interactivity most celebrated by social media champions and using them to manipulate and mislead audiences. Organisations that have used such tactics appear to have misunderstood the potential chance to improve upon how they operate and instead look upon social media as just another channel through which to push their brands and products, and in a particularly sneaky way. It is a very similar trend as to that which developed in the print media sector in the coming together of advertising and editorial content in the form of advertorials. With the internet only making everything easier, I suppose similar issues were inevitably going to cause problems online.
What is perhaps the most unethical aspect of astroturfing is that often the authors of the content published are painted as your average joe/josephine public, written to look like personal blogs but are in fact carefully crafted promotional propaganda pieces developed strategically by the companies themselves. By recognizing recent trends such as citizen journalism and the public's increasing need for authenticity in the face of recent private sector scandals, corporations have even found a way to capitalize on the growing distrust of their dodgy practice, and with further unethical practice!
But audiences are only becoming wiser. There have been many examples of companies using these methods being busted by readers with a more critical eye. For example Vichy a French cosmetics company and devision of the L’Oreal group did a particularly bad job of creating a ‘customer’ blog creating an unrealistic character which was just not made believable enough to audiences. What is most interesting about this case however is that once the company eventually owned up to their mistakes (they blamed it on a poor understanding of social media) they started on a clean slate with customers who appreciated their eventual honesty and now appear to have reasonably good communication with the company through a much better, more authentic and transparent website. This is a case the social media author Shel Isreal wrote about on his blog. Wallmart and Sony have also been criticized for their use of such tactics in the past amongst many other companies. Although these cases cause concern it is perhaps more worrying to consider the organizations who have not been caught out and what they have got away with, particularly when it comes to fake blogs on sensitive social issues.
I think although these examples are old and hopefully audiences are growing in awareness of these schemes, it is still important to highlight such activity as it is so incredibly easy to create online content and pass it off as credible if you have the skills and know how. In addition to this, I for one have to admit having not really given these issues much consideration (aside from issues with Wikipedia) and had never heard of the terms ‘flogging’ or ‘astroturfing’ until recently and only due to actually studying in this area. I believe that there has to be more effort in monitoring and pulling up companies who use these tricky tactics, something which websites such as PR Watch/Centre for Media Democracy (find an interesting article here on how to try and distinguish astroturf sites) and Corporate Watch currently do. Most importantly, just as the sector has dealt with problems over ethics in the past, PR practitioners need to bear these problems with social media use in mind and ensure that they not only feel obliged to tell the truth but view this as being vital in the upkeep of the industry as a profession.