It seems the issue of ethical behavior can't stay out of the limelight right now. While the Democrats are grappling with the newly created Office of Congressional Ethics and two of their own representatives under investigation for, ahem, questionable behavior, the Federal Trade Commission is coming down on PR companies that are misleading the public by posting fake reviews on behalf of their clients.
My thanks to the FTC for giving this rather silent, but ugly, issue the attention it deserves.
A few weeks ago, a PR company was fined by the FTC in what I believe to be a first for the PR world correct me if I am wrong.) The agency, which shall remain nameless in this column, represented a number of games developers, including the creator of Rock Band. Thinking itself very clever, the agency assigned staffers the roles of guest bloggers and reviewers, who got to work on creating fake consumer profiles and posting glowing but fake reviews.
For about six months, the PR agency owner and her crew duped consumers on iTunes into believing the reviews were posted by gamers for fellow gamers -- people they thought they could trust for an authentic, first-hand take on the game.
While the goal of generating positive reviews is clearly a huge focus for agencies involved not only in product-centric PR, but who also earn revenues from product sales (the agency in question earned commission from game sales, so positive reviews + sales = more money in its bank), misleading consumers like this is both unethical and dirty. Actually, let me rephrase: misleading consumers is unethical and dirty, period.
At what point in planning out a client's launch or PR strategy is fraud considered as an active component instead of creative or even traditional approaches? Was it desperation, client pressure or, perhaps, greed that drove this agency to lower its standards -- if it had any to begin with?
Instead of spending six months creating fake consumer profiles and reviews, the agency should have spent its time on:
Clearly, the agency chose the easy-and-sleazy option instead of relying on talent and good old-fashioned hard work.
The sad part about this type of dirty tactic is that it is so simple to do, and the FTC is going to have a hell of a time policing it. With social media, anyone can create a profile and post countless reviews, potentially influencing consumers.
And that's precisely the point: if any review that a consumer reads is in fact a manipulated, marketing ploy designed to influence a purchasing decision -- by a marketer and not a consumer -- then full disclosure must be given. Always.
Truth in advertising
The FTC makes it very clear that companies engaged in online marketing -- and yes, this does include PR firms -- need to abide by long-held principles of truth in advertising.
"Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers."
A PR agency should never be held responsible for the content of consumer reviews, especially in our increasingly social media-ruled world, and our clients must be educated about the actions that agencies can and cannot take, no matter how big the payout or stakes.
Laws have been created to protect consumers from misleading practices. Manipulating and faking reviews is tantamount to fraud and premeditated deception. If agencies and online marketers continue duping consumers in this way, they are cutting off the hand that feeds them. And if consumers can no longer trust review sites or even social media recommendations, then what do we all do?
Actions like these that give PR a bad name.