Is astroturfing truly counter productive? I wonder…..

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If we agree that credibility and familiarity of both source and content are prerequisites for any communication to be effective, we must always remember to be very careful when we tend to enhance and exalt social media as we often do when we write, make presentations or lecture.
Only a few days ago in Milano 150 young Italian marketing and public relations professionals packed a conference room for a full day organized by Digital PR -a Hill&Knowlton (Wpp) firm which is doing very well in Italy and now expanding to other European markets and is led by Paolo Guadagni– while various social media experts presented case after case practical applications of social media:
°from Gabetti’s successful marketing presence in Second Life (Gabetti is an Italian real estate company) which in two months has cost them 50 thousand euros and has brought in a couple of million of US dollars in actual sales;
°to Case New Holland’s (one of the world’s largest land moving machinery manufacturers) careful monitoring of the blogosphere to identify how farmers use the Internet and converse in newsgroups, forums and blogs;
°to Fiat’s early buzz campaign to launch the Bravo model through a cooperative blog which involved the whole design, marketing and manufacturing team six months before market launch.

By the way, it is interesting to note how all case presenters insisted that, even before any other tangible benefit, these social media exercises all had a forceful impact on organizational and internal processes, not dissimilarly to what is happening in many organizations who have decided to report to stakeholders their corporate responsibility activities…

Hill & Knowlton’s European head of the social media practice, Joel Cere, at a certain point of his presentation claimed that:
astroturfing is a no-go, because in social media this practice doesn’t work and you are going to get caught’ and then went on to cite the Edelman Wal Mart case to prove it.
I strongly disagree (apart from the fact that H&K being a direct competitor of Edelman might have suggested the good taste of using other examples…and there many to choose from…).
Astroturfing, which is in no way a social-media-driven invention -as well as the use of front organizations and other opaque adoption of other identities to hide one’s own to induce publics in accepting contents apparently from more credible and authoritative sources- is a practice which dates back to the very origins of public relations.
Of course it is true that social media largely amplifies the possibility of being found out but, at the same time, it also greatly increases the chances of exercising such practice at little if any cost.
This implies that we will never really know how many are being implemented until someone finds out, and, even then, we have no certainty that those who have in the meantime been improperly influenced will have been made aware that it was an astroturfing exercise.
Thus, our credibility is seriously in question when we use the argument that ‘it doesn’t work’.
How do we know?
It is much better to say that these practices are no-go’s because they are basically misleading and contrary to ethical practices of both organizations and the profession, rather than that they don’t work…because we have no way to prove our statement.
Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to add that if you do get found out, then it is also counterproductive.
Your opinions?

15 COMMENTS

  1. Toni, you’re right in saying that we don’t have proof that astroturfing doesn’t work. We only know about those, who got caught (“didn’t work”), and this might be a minor number in comparison. (Again, we can’t be sure.)
    But is it enough to denounce it as unethical practice when we might take the risk that nobody gives a damn? “Unethical but working” (in terms of desired results) may have a certain appeal to more than just a few.
    If we could manage to prove that astroturfing is “not working” (considering results, risks, reputation) because it is unethical, then we’d be in the clear. Social media reducing the cost for astroturfing adventures may possibly be detrimental.
    Unfortunately the pr industry isn’t equipped with a pyrolytic self.cleaning.

  2. Markus,
    I see your point, but if we say to your clients, colleagues and students things which are not credible we are even more risking that nobody gives a damn. If I say that astroturfing is a no-go because it doesn’t work because with social media it easier to get caught, I am inadvertently passing on a very very weak argument. Anyone understands that: a) as much as it is easier to get caught it is also easier to practice; b)one cannot know of all the astroturf practice going on which does not get caught. Is this a credible argument to convince someone that it is no-go?
    What you suggest: to prove that it is a no-go because it is unethical, is like saying that corrupting a journalist is no-go because it is unethical. Fresh water… In my experience, the only argument which sometimes works with a professional is to convince her/him that if they risk their credibility in order to satisfy the short term objective of a client/employer they are the ones who will suffer the most in the medium long term because they lose their credibility. It’s not easy, but the professional’s own credibility is probably her/his biggest asset and if one succeeds in convincing her/him that by astroturfing that asset is at stake…..

  3. It goes beyond the credibility of an individual; it’s the credibility of the profession and what we do collectively.

    Advertising, IMO, has already discredited itself in the public eye. Kids don’t buy ads; they shrug them off. They’ve been beaten senseless by a constant barrage of sales message. Confronted with this, the ad industry’s seems to have only one response — more ads. Careening toward the bottom and picking up speed along the way.

    Astroturfing threatens to have the same effect on what we communicators do with our audiences.

  4. @Toni: I wasn’t actually saying that AT is a no-go because it’s unethical, that would be simply appealing to one’s ethical standards (which may be very low occasionally). I was trying to argue that because AT is unethical it may do more damage to your and your clients’ reputation, if you get cought. Which isn’t very much different from what you wrote, only more precisely.
    @Bob: I’m not sure that kids don’t buy ads. Have you ever tried to buy (your) kids clothes or shoes or whatever of a less than cool/hip/(insert epithet of your liking) brand?

  5. I’’m sorry – I have to take issue with one thing here. Well, several actually, but I’ll deal with this one first. Toni – you say “Thus ‘our’ credibility is seriously in question when we use the argument that ‘it doesn’t work’. Well I for one wouldn’t use the argument at all, as astroturfing is not a method I would employ or give a second thought to. As it happens, I think the credibility issue lies with Mr Cere, the source of the quote, rather than the rest of us, and I don’t like being lumped in with that perspective and really don’t want to be part of that particular ‘our’. Indeed, given the quote (perhaps removed from context, as I will jump through hoops to give anyone the benefit of the doubt) has that kind of approach to astroturfing, I am surprised he is still getting paid to do the job.

    Any practitioner in their right mind (or worth their salt) will not astroturf. Some deluded publicists ( I won’t call them practitioners) might unscrupulously be surfing for dollars, in which case they are between the devil and the deep blue sea, so may the fates deal them the hands they deserve. And, as you rightly say, it is a practice which has been linked with public relations for a number of decades. Fortunately, we all now know that that sort of thing – like smoking – isn’t good for you and, hey, the very idea is a little passé.

    There is a flicker of hope in my mind that today’s practitioners are completely self-aware, have outgrown this perspective and will have therefore deduced that honest, transparent and true advocacy of their organisation is the only path to take. How can any form of astroturfing further a sensible and mutually beneficial relationship between people? How can any form of astroturfing (and there are a multitude of manifestations) move a business or organisation forwards? Bob is absolutely right when he says it reflects on the credibility of the profession.

    If you want to slavishly follow outdated and somewhat archaic business models, along with the kind of ethical approach that the many discredited corporations have followed, then maybe astroturfing is the way to go. For the rest of us – and I have a blind and hopeful faith that it is a majority ‘us’ – our right thinking minds in today’s business and social environment understand that transparency, dialogue and an honest willingness to engage with stakeholders is still the way to go. Social media is neither here nor there – it is simply another approach to take.

    Finally, to Markus, I truly wish I had the skills and ability to converse in German for a while – I am in awe of your ability to communicate in the English language, along with all the other PR Conversationalists who explore this subject so eruditely in their second language – would that we all had your linguistic talents and ability! (In fact, I am off to download a ‘ how to speak’ podcast now – but I am torn between Italian and German – which should I choose? Now that really is a difficult – and potentially contentious – debate!) And I have bought my boys ‘less than cool’ brands – they can deal with it, because we have had the whole ‘sweatshop’ conversation and their generation is considerably less bothered with brand and far more bothered with impact,community and sustainability – to flick back to another conversational thread here!

  6. Catherine,
    in no way was mr. Cere advocating astroturfing.
    What I was questioning is if it is a good idea to use the argument that it doesn’t work, when we all know damn well it does work if and when your objective is a fast one… and there is no question about the fact that more than five times out of ten (and even in the best of circumstances) your client/employer is asking you for a fast one.
    Thus if you use an argument which is not credible, your interlocutor will lower your rate of credibility and this is a touchy issue for any professional.
    Of course I agree with Bob that credibility of the profession is in general more important than the professional credibility of an individual, but as we know all too well (or else we wouldn’t be here today) most professionals are (if at all keen to worry about how they operate, and this relates to a minority..) more keen to worry about their own credibility, than that of the profession. And this is why I said that this is the only angle I can cite as being sometimes effective in order to raise awareness of colleagues over the consequences of how they operate.
    The language issue, I am very much aware, is a difficult one. When sometimes I reread my posts I wish I had written them differently and the nuances one would like to get across often get ‘lost in translation’… This tends to happen in our own native language all the time, imagine in a language which is not ours…

  7. Last night Ira Basen spoke at CPRS Toronto’s AGM and he spent a fair bit of time on the topic of astroturfing, which he thinks is quite pernicious, particularly in regards to accelerating the public’s distrust of the information they read, both in mainstream *and* social media–journalists and PRs.

    (I had the opportunity to chat with him at length post-presentation and Ira said he would send me his speaking notes. Hopefully I can expand further on his words directed to PR practitioners down the road.)

    A reminder that the final episode of his “Spin Cycles” series from the CBC spends a lot of time on the subject of astroturfing.

    Spinning into the 21st century: Episode 6
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/spincycles/index.html

    Audio file: http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/spincycles/audio/spincycleep6.mp3 (49.43 minutes)

    It might be worth a listen (or a refresher listen).

    (Cathy, Ira was very clear in stating that he thinks the majority of PR practitioners are ethical in their dealings with the media and various publics. He said that a number of times.)

  8. Always a delight when I need to look up a word or two. Pernicious — deadly — was findable, but astroturfing was not in my dictionary. And it’s probably an insult to the makers of astro turf.

    But if we’ve talking about the WalMart con job with the fake RV couple… yeah, lying is bad.

    What puzzles me is how Edelman was the villian. Don’t tell me WalMart did not know the whole deal was based on deliberately misleading the public..

    And now I see by my morning paper on Friday past that Dell has got into bed with the liars at Wal-Mart. Now, there’s a store in which to buy computers. Run by liars, who employee the lowest quality retail people outside of adult video stores, to sell products that are really complicated, especially to the people who would go to Wal-Mart to buy a computer. And they bungled the announcement, making them (both Dell and WalMart) look stupid.

    Liars in marketing departments — and I think you’ll find most of the social media scams come from marketing departments, not real PR departments — have got away with deceit for quite a while, but in the narrower marketing segment of advertising, at least at the higher levels, there really is a lot of honesty.

    There are lots of rules about honesty here in Canada.

    As for Ira — notwithstanding that his CBC radio series was pretty good, he’s a scam artist, too.

    This dishonest “journalist” interviewed on his show an executive of a public raltions agency that had as its assignment the promnotion of Ira’s radio progam, and Ira failed to tell his listeners that his interview subject was employed by the organization for which he, too, worked.

    Seem kosher to you?

    Other than the dishonesty, his show was pretty good, and PR Conversation readers with time on their hands should go to the CBCX archives, and listen.

    As for getting in trouble by lying on so-called social media — I suggest that PR people look at the concept of e-discovery (punch up the Conrad Black kangaroo court lynching in Chicago as a starting point) and note the way government prosecuters can find out who sent what message to whom, when, etc.

    And then just wait for a politician who did not get a big donantion from some company that ran a social media scam, to notice that aforementioned scam.

    And then watch the court case.

    Is having a fake web site social media? Then just lookup Best Buy’s fakery in Hartford, Conn., USA.

    In this deal, Best Buy — so the allegations go, and this is not a completed court case — ran one price on its real web site, and then when a sucker came in to buy the product, Best Buy questioned whether the custoemr remembered correctly, and then punched up a fake web site with a higher price.

    Try this scam across state lines int he USA and the FBI raise an eyebrow.

    Enough for now. Time to cook dinner.

    BAK

  9. Hello everyone,

    Nice conversation. Just like BAK I decided to start by thinking more about what are people mentioning when they speak about astroturfing.

    Here are some thoughts I developed after looking at the AstroTurf (AT, as Markus proposed) definition at the Centre for Media and Democracy (www.prwatch.org is probably one of the most interesting sources to get into the minds of PR critics).

    They endorse a definition of AT as «grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.»

    AT is about manufacturing public support (do you note any resemblance with Bernays idea of the “engineering of consent”?) instead of achieving the support of the publics. AT is considering publics as ignorants and as “a means to an end” instead of as “an end in themselves” (one of the Kantian Maxims). AT is about trying to influence the “published opinion” (AKA public opinion) and forgetting the importance of the “opinion of the publics”. [More on this on a previous conversation we had here http://www.prconversations.com/?p=41 ]

    This is why AT is a terrible practice with serious consequences for public life and for the growing disbelief of people in democracies. By the way, can AT be one of the reasons that help explain why Governments have lost so much confidence capital over the last few years – according to the Edelman Trust Barometer?

    João Duarte

  10. Getting a handle on the consensus definition of astroturfing definitely helps to determine whether Toni original post (and Brian’s examples) fit the bill or not. I just discovered another cool aspect to Google search, which is Scholar search. I promptly punched in astroturfing and received the following:

    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=%22astroturfing%22&btnG=Search

    And Bob LeDrew, it’s nice to see you join the PR Conversation; despite your comment about the ineffectiveness of most ad campaigns, we still think of you very fondly here at the Certified General Accountants of Ontario because of the wonderful (unsolicited) editorial you did several years ago on CBC Radio about our (former) television ad campaign.

  11. I suppose I should be pleased that Brian Kilgore thinks my series “Spin Cycles” is “pretty good”, but it’s hard to get too enthusiastic since he also believes I’m a “scam artist” and “dishonest”. He writes….

    This dishonest “journalist” interviewed on his show an executive of a public raltions agency that had as its assignment the promnotion of Ira’s radio progam, and Ira failed to tell his listeners that his interview subject was employed by the organization for which he, too, worked.

    To be precise, I actually interviewed two executives from the firm Media Profile for the series. The first was Patrick Gossage, the firm’s president, who was once press secretary to Pierre Trudeau. I used him in Program Three to talk about how television came to dominate election coverage in the 1970’s and 80’s, while he was working for Mr. Trudeau. The second was Susan Reisler who is a Media Profile vice-president. She was a senior CBC journalist before she went into PR, and brings a unique perspective on the nexus between PR and the press. She appeared in Program One, giving a vigorous defence of PR against the charge that it was all about spin and lying, and in Program Two, to discuss the techniques of media training.

    Media Profile currently has a contract with the CBC to promote its radio and television shows. Neither Patrick nor Susan are personally involved in that work. Aware that there might be a perception of a conflict of interest, I received permission to interview Patrick and Susan from John Bozzo, Executive Director of CBC English Communications, who has overall responsibility for promotion at the CBC. Mr. Bozzo agreed that there were legitimate reasons to interview both Patrick and Susan, and the roles that they played in the series had no connection to any publicity work Media Profile might ultimately do for the series. I believe this was the correct decision, and I saw no reason to make an on-air connection between those individuals and the very tangential role that their firm played in the series.

    Brian Kilgore’s statement that Patrick Gossage and Susan Reisler are “employed” by the CBC is ludicrous. The CBC enters into contracts with hundreds of private firms that perform a wide variety of functions for the corporation. Employees of these firms are not CBC employees by any stretch of the imagination. And if Mr. Kilgore is suggesting that Media Profile gave additional promotional support to the series because of the role played by Patrick and Susan, my response would be…if only that were true. My question to Mr. Kilgore is, where was the “dishonesty”, and who was I “scamming”?

    As for the question of astro-turfing, I think the most compelling reason for PR people to speak out against it is that it is prohibited by the codes of ethics of both the PRSA and the CPRS. The PRSA code is most explicit. Under the category “Disclosure of Information” it states that it is improper for a member to implement “‘grass roots’ campaigns or letter writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.”

    The CPRS code states… “A member shall be prepared to disclose publicly the name of their employer or client on whose behalf public communications is made. A member shall also not associate themselves with anyone claiming to represent one interest or professing to be independent or unbiased, but actually serving another or undisclosed interest”.

    Although these Codes of Ethics are ultimately not enforceable, they represent a powerful statement of what the PR industry stands for, and what it believes in. They were drawn up by PR practitioners. If people who work in PR do not vigorously condemn these activities when they appear, it will be hard for the outside world to believe that the industry’s commitment to openess and transparency is worth much more than the paper these codes are printed on.

  12. Ira,

    Congratulations for your “Spin Cycles”! I’m very glad that you took time to participate in this conversation.

    You have a very good point regarding the astro-turfing, although in my view it’s not so much about doing something on behalf of an undisclosed interest but more about “undisclosed actions” on behalf of a known interest.

    The slight difference might be underlined by the mention to another code. The Lisbon Code (Officially adopted by the European Confederation of PR – CERP – back in 1978) stresses several professional obligations for PR Professionals amongst which are “obligations towards public opinion and information media”.

    It might be of particular interest to reply here the Clause 14 of Lisbon Code
    “Any attempt to deceive public opinion or its representatives is strictly forbidden. Any form of blackmail, corruption or exertion of undue influence, especially in relation to the information media, is forbidden. News must be provided without charge and with no private understanding or hidden reward for its use or publication.”

    I think this is much a question of trying to influence published opinion and forgetting that the most important opinion is the (true) opinion of the publics. Many practitioners still base the biggest part of their work on the premise that if they achieve certain objectives with regard to the published opinion, then they will have done their work right. To me, this might well be the bottom line of astro-turfing.

    João Duarte

  13. Interesting debate… Astroturfing has been around for ages (the infamous “letter to the editor”) and of course, it is not new to social media. PR agencies that post under false identities in online forums or blogs gamble with their and their clients’ reputation. It does deliver short term results but the risk of it backfiring is not worth taking compared to other means of advancing one’s agenda. I personally would not endorse such practice and this is the message I conveyed during my presentation.

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