Avoiding ethical lapses online

January 6, 2010

Our agency took on a new account that drives much of its business from online sources. Our supervisor asked us to visit various review sites and comment on our client as if we are satisfied consumers. I’m not comfortable with this, but my supervisor says that people do this all of the time. What do you think?

A sense of discomfort is normal. Some PR practitioners think that online communication is completely exempt from the basic rules that they observe offline. But they’re about to find out that the FTC views the issue of transparency differently.

For example, a major PR firm working with a Fortune 500 client found itself involved in a public controversy because it sponsored two freelance writers to pose as consumers and post online blog entries relating to their client. So did an organization in New York, which sent out memos and e-mails urging employees to spend time on review sites pretending to be satisfied customers.  As a result, the organization had to pay $300,000 in penalties to the State of New York last summer, one of the first cases in the country aimed at combating  “astroturfing,” commonly defined as the artificial creation of a grassroots buzz for a product, service or political viewpoint.

“Of all people, you’d think PR professionals would recognize the danger in this,” said Deborah Radman,  APR, Fellow PRSA, executive vice president and director of public relations at Cramer-Krasselt Public Relations in New York City.

“We’re always advising our clients to avoid the sort of ethical lapses that can create negative public attention on a broad scale, and yet so many PR pros shrug their shoulders at phony product reviews.”

However, these sloppy practices now go beyond subjective judgment calls with the recently updated guides relating to endorsements in social media.

“The revised FTC Guides require that employees clearly and conspicuously disclose their employment relationship when promoting their employers’ products in social media,” says Michael Lasky, Esq., a partner at Davis & Gilbert LLC in New York City.

And Allison Fitzpatrick, an associate who also works at Davis & Gilbert adds, “Failure to make this disclosure may result in an FTC action against the employer, even in instances where the employer did not authorize the statement.”

Beyond the risk of being discovered and dealing with the fallout, the greater issue is whether these tactics are effective.

If the practice of phony review writing is widespread, then don’t you think that savvy online shoppers are aware of it? And don’t you think that they look at such over-enthusiastic endorsements with a certain amount of skepticism?

Think of it like this: PR pros often talk about the value of a newspaper’s “implied endorsement” when the publication runs a story about clients’ products. Because it chose to feature the product on the basis of news judgment rather than advertising dollars, PR pros regard the endorsement as more valuable than an ad.

PR professionals place a premium on the newspaper’s reputation and editorial decision. With an anonymous online product review, you have no idea who the writer is, how well the writer actually knows the product or what motivated him or her to write the review.

The Internet offers many opportunities for genuine, person-to-person communication about clients’ products — methods that consumers trust and ones that can keep you out of trouble.

Have a question for Ann? E-mail: askthepro@prsa.org.

Ann Willets
Ann Willets is president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc., an ethically focused PR agency. She was the 2010 chair of the Counselors Academy.


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