Speaking at a dinner in Manhattan, Emil Michael, a senior exec with Uber, suggested that to fight bad press, the company should hire a team to dig into personal information on journalists and Uber critics. That team would, he said, look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine. Later, Uber was also exposed for tracking journalists who used the service.
Then, on the same day the Senate successfully blocked sending a bill to the President that would have helped move the Keystone XL pipeline forward, a PR plan drawn up by public relations giant Edelman for TransCanada Corporation (which is behind both Keystone and the proposed alternative) was exposed for (among other tactics) digging into the backgrounds of opposition groups.
This is the result of the PR industry deciding long ago that press relations was not where the real money was, and then claiming that it could solve problems impacting bottom-line revenues. Kinda like Wanamaker's complaint about advertising, PR has always had a problem showing a clear connection between favorable press and increased sales. Every mathematical formula to prove that was frontloaded with subjective assumptions about the value of this or that, so no one ever came up with a successful KPI model. Sure, good press makes the phone ring, queries to the Web site jump -- and at times, unsolicited orders hit the inbox or shopping cart -- but when it’s time for an objective analysis, there is always someone a little closer to the revenue stream (marketing, sales, product dev, etc.) to claim credit.
So this shift to try and position PR as a "strategic partner" to top management to help them solve big business problems leads to dumb-ass plans like "digging into backgrounds of opposition groups." Is that PR? Not really. Can it be part of a "strategic communications plan" that big firms sell to clients in order to justify astronomical monthly retainers? Yep.
Thanks to the Internet (for the time being, the right to be forgotten by Google remaining a European phenomenon) it has never been easier to dig up dirt on folks who oppose your point of view or stand in the way of your business plans. But is trying to leverage someone else's past missteps or mistakes an ethically or morally responsible way to run a business? Nope… unless you want to live in an endless loop of "Scandal" pretending you are Olivia Pope (but with a shoddier wardrobe).
The best tools for successful PR are truth, knowledge, clarity, reliability, availability, experience, education -- oh, and having some real news to offer. All the rest is window-dressing that helps keep PR a lowly regarded industry.