Whisper-Gate smears PR, social media

Posted on May 14, 2011
Astroturfing survey

via MarketingProfs.com

Companies are highly motivated these days to manage their reputations and advocate their positions using social media. Sometimes that goes too far. This week Facebook and public relations giant Burson-Marsteller (B-M) appear to have crossed the line in what is becoming known as “Whisper-Gate.”

For the record, if anyone at your company asks you to set up fake social media accounts, whisper falsehoods about a competitor or to masquerade as someone you are not, the right response is “No.” Mom and whatever higher power you believe in will be proud, even if you are out of work shortly thereafter.

But I digress.

Back to Whisper-Gate. Normally I resist “-gate” nomenclature as elevating minor sleazery to Nixonian heights, but this one, while not a matter of national security, certainly is prominent enough to be gate-worthy.

As reported in Ragan’s PRDaily.com, “News trickled out all week about a so-called ‘whisper campaign’ targeting Google. The details of the campaign gained traction, and by Thursday the details became clear. Facebook had hired B-M to pitch stories about how Google’s foray into social networking was supposedly creating privacy concerns.

“To get the word out, B-M enlisted the help of former journalists to pitch their colleagues on a story about privacy issues related to Google’s Social Circle. There was no mention that Facebook was behind it. The pitch reeked, and USA Today called foul. Another pitch target smelled a rat, too, and printed the exchange with the B-M rep.”

Whether Facebook specifically asked for this “service” as it was executed, or whether B-M went off the rails on its own, will probably never be fully known.

B-M issued this: “Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”

This propagandist dark side of public relations, and now social media, is closely related to what has been called “astroturfing,” an apt description for a fake grassroots movement. Look up astroturfing on Wikipedia and you’ll find B-M has stumbled long before social media came along:

“The National Smokers Alliance, an early astroturf group created by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris, worked to influence federal legislation in 1995 by organizing mailings and running a phone-bank urging people to call or write to politicians expressing their opposition to laws aimed at discouraging teens from starting to smoke.”

As PRDaily.com reported, B-M has been “the grand poobah of PR. The 2,200-employee firm solidified its place in history when it turned around Tylenol after the tampering incidents in the 1980s. It is a classic case study in crisis communication, and it’s still referenced today in university communications classes as nothing short of brilliant.”

Even if B-M has had a long history of professional and ethical behaviour (90-year-old co-founder Harold Burson has advised American leaders for decades) events such as this call into question its moral fibre, and that of the public relations profession itself.

B-M is not the only firm to slip up in this manner. Edelman also had an early social media stumble, albeit a more benign one. Again from Wikipedia: “One notorious example of identity cloaking, resulting in a fake blog, was exposed when Edelman, an international public relations firm, created a fake blog in 2006 called Walmarting Across America. It was purportedly written by two Wal-Mart ‘enthusiasts’ who decided to journey across the United States in an RV, blogging about the experience as they visited Wal-Marts along the way. While two people actually did travel across the United States in an RV, the publicity stunt was revealed to be paid for by Wal-Mart, a client of Edelman.”

More recently we’ve seen a form of social media astroturfing in the October 2010 Toronto civic election by now-mayor Rob Ford’s team, whose election campaign “involved the creation of fake social media profiles to raise the profile of the candidate. This was openly admitted days after the election victory to demonstrate the campaign manager’s political savvy.”

Clearly we need to stake out higher ground for public relations and social media to be relevant and to survive. No one likes a liar, though they can be forgiven.

Instead, let’s strive to conduct ourselves as Michael McCain and Maple Leaf Foods did in their moment of crisis, with genuine concern, transparency, open communication and impeccable ethics. This is the new textbook case study. Let’s focus on that as the benchmark for good public relations and social media conduct.

Doug Lacombe is president of Calgary social media agency communicatto. He speaks the truth as he sees it at http://facebook.com/communicatto.


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