Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ethics, arrogance and elitism

IR Daily is looking at PR ethics (note 1) . It makes some powerful points. There are others that have emerged this year. It is time to take stock.

"Increasingly, it appears that companies are being sucked into a
quagmire of risky Web communication practices.

PR firms set up front
organizations and websites
to say nice things about their clients and their
products. People using these sites are supposed to be deceived into
thinking the sites and the information they provide are

Marketers offer money to
people who will write nice things
about products and companies on the Web,
without disclosing that the company bought their opinions.

infiltrate message boards to post nice things about themselves or their products
and services. They do so under fake names so that people will think they’re
unconnected to the company.

Sleazy practices go unquestioned!

Then there are practices in the IR industry that are just
plain sleazy.

For-profit agencies dress themselves up as “associations” or “societies” and hand out undeserved awards to companies who fail to ask questions.

A consulting firm pretends to have a glitzy New York address when in
fact it is merely renting a “virtual address” and its real head quarters are in a place most people can’t spell. </P>

Over 100 American companies use technology to compile detailed reports on the online habits of individual visitors to their websites, never stopping to ask if this might be an invasion of privacy.

Sometimes deception and dishonesty seem harmless. If it’s not illegal or it’s not personally or monetarily injurious, it’s seen as acceptable. A minor inconvenience to the user.

We’ve dabbled in a bit of “minor inconvenience” deception ourselves here at IR Web Report. I’m not proud of it. We used to use our articles to link to pages on
the site that promote our services.

We might say something like “In our recent research on online annual reports, we found that…” The problem here is that there’s no indication that the link goes to a sales pitch for our membership plan.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Lots of people do it, from the Web’s
usability guru to a former SEC lawyer who uses it to pitch subscriptions to
his online services.

But it’s absolutely not ok. All it does is lead someone to click on a link that they might otherwise avoid. They immediately feel cheated after you “get” them to do what you want. It’s a stupid tactic, isn’t it? Someone who has just been deceived >by you is hardly softened-up to become your customer.

This is but the tip of the iceberg.

Pick any press release and read it. The content, claims and syntax is transparently hyped. This as a document given to a journalist, is patronising, arrogant, elitist. Here, the company, one partner in the communication process, is demeaning the other. Talking down, assuming journalism and journalists need to be fooled. What kind of partnership is this? What kind of people is the company prepared to partner with - some hack journo who cannot check if 'world leading' is meaningful? Would the company really partner with such people?

What sort of company is this? Elitist, deceptive, manipulative and prepared to work with second class partners. This is what the PR industry is prepared to recommend to its clients.

PR by the very documents it shows to the world condones elitism and perpetuates the divide between communication partners and yet in a second breath will talk about diversity.

Take this as an example statement from the PR Industry:

It’s really the sense of most blogs being first jottings and half thought
through that bothers me. I value the language of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and
Hemingway too much to see its daily massacre. ‘Blogs’ seem in many cases to
spring straight from a semi-engaged brain on to the page. I cringe at the
inability of people to stand back and critically assess their thoughts before
committing them, arrogantly, world-wide (or so they think – most get read by a
few saddies and surfers).

Here we see the PR industry commenting ill of and ill prepared to learn about, understand adopt or use a channel for communication and a form of social interaction. It makes demeaning comments about people whose first trade is not writing. It even is disdainful of the blogging editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Once again, PR shows how elitist, arrogant and, perhaps ethically at odds with a readership as big as the national newspaper industry it has become.

Alongside these issues there are concerns about atroturfing (passing off) which is another case of bad practice endemic in PR practice.

Gary Bivings has made this point:

.. it seems that PR types and marketers are paying bloggers to write favoarble stories about client products. There's a story(not yet online) in the November issues of Smart Money called "Bloggers" by Anne Kadet highlighting this new (perhaps not, alas) and sordid trend. There's even a company called that as its name implies pays blogger for posts. Seems about as reputable as paying individuals and companies to fradulently click on search engine ads. (Yes, this is a real problem.)

The fact of Internet Porosity, Transparency and Agency firts put forward by Anne Gregory (2) and outlined here in a sequence of posts (click 'next' at the bottom of each post).

It is time to look at the ethical issues from the inside out (note 3). The essential is this:

Now, and
increasingly in the future, trust will be
imperative. Ethical PR will need to
prevail. Part of the ethic will be deliv-
ered by technology, and only then will
a brand be able to survive electronic
navigators able to compare efficacy dis-
passionately. The wider implications
for ethics will then come into play.
Part of ethical practice will be in the
management of reputation. Essentially
this is management of transparency,
porosity and agency in all aspects of
corporate governance. When, because
of ethical misdemeanour (whether
actual or perceived), trust is lost, com-
panies lose competitive advantage.

If the PR industry cannot do it, Internet agency, this time using machines, will.

There is no greater issue for the PR industry today.

1 IR Daily » Less Deception Needed on the Web -
2 Gregory, A, (1999) How the Internet Radically Changes Public Relations Practice, paper submitted to the IPR/PRCA Internet Commission.
3 Phillips, D. (2000) Blazing Netshine on the Value Network - The processes of Internet public relations management Journal of Communication Management December 2000 Vol 5 No 2