How Low Can PR Go? …Pretty Low.

16 Jan How Low Can PR Go? …Pretty Low.

I like to think that all public relations firms and their associated employees exhibit a certain level of ethical professionalism.  Examples might be: not blanket-emailing media lists with press releases, not lying to journalists and avoiding smear campaigns targeted at competitors.

This boundless optimism, however, is crushed under the hobnailed boot of agency reality more often than not.  The need to provide measurable results to clients far outweighs many PR professionals’ adherence to a moral compass, leading to the assumption that “PR person = snake/Illuminati agent/literally a CIA assassin.”

Cormac Foster posted a story on ReadWriteWeb that might just make me abandon my hope for ethical public relations altogether.   The behavior from this firm is so egregious, so absurdly polarized to the most basic moral guidelines of the profession that I had to read it several times before I could actually believe it.

Cormac’s post provides far more detail than I will here, but essentially:

  • Unnamed agency posts a job description on Elance, looking for writers to “weave in” specific subjects to news articles prior to publication on reputable sites.
  • Cormac responds and finds out that the job is to promote a small virtualization vendor, with a reward of $25.
  • He then contacts the vendor, who is completely in the dark and horrified by the PR firm’s approach, leading to potential legal action against the agency.

As the ReadWriteWeb post points out, this is disturbingly similar to payola, an illegal music industry practice of paying for songs to be played on broadcast radio.  Similarities aside, should this practice become more commonplace, it’s far more dangerous than payola in terms of influencing public consciousness.

News, even niche trade news, is intended to be fair and neutral, with reporters having no affiliation with their subjects unless otherwise very clearly stated.  “PR Payola” would destroy the foundation of neutrality built by the press and place unpleasant scrutiny on the backgrounds of all journalists, even those who aren’t taking industry payment for articles.

Moving past the impact on journalism, this makes public relations look even worse.  This isn’t a black eye; it’s a haymaker punch with the potential for a KO.  Every PR person, regardless of how above-board their actions may be, will be looked at as a potential schemer, further deteriorating press-PR relations.

Let’s be clear, though: what Cormac Foster uncovered is not the same thing as hiring a freelance writer to develop content for you or a client, even if that content is going to be published.  As long as you are upfront about the source with whatever publication is running the piece, you don’t risk stepping into these murky waters.

I’m sure that whatever firm posted this job opportunity was only trying to meet their client’s goals.  Unfortunately for them and for public relations as an industry, they did a lot more than just that.

–John Terrill

John Terrill
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