Every now and then, PR practices seem to descend the low road of common politics: Corporations occasionally endeavor to besmirch their competitors much the same way as political candidates attempt to tarnish their opponents, often through proxies and on a nameless basis.
Such practices may be tempting in a fiercely competitive environment where stiff market share is at stake, and where electronic and social media can be a Petri dish for cultivating rumors and a hotbed for disseminating reputation-sullying commentary. Yet, apart from their dubious ethical standards, these practices are tactically myopic and strategically wrongheaded, for they stand a good chance of backfiring. Moreover, there are PR alternatives that can generate far better outcomes.
Facebook’s recent PR fiasco harks back to John Mackey, CEO of grocery chain Whole Foods. Several years ago, Mackey was discovered posting comments on a Yahoo stock-market forum under an alias—comments in which he disparaged one of his rivals, Wild Oats, while adulating his own franchise. The episode cast not only an ethical cloud over Mackey and his business, but an ironic one as well.
After all, it was Whole Foods that had proclaimed to espouse a humane treatment of animals—specifically lobsters, as Mackey himself once boasted. When the news about Mackey’s postings surfaced, his double standard came into public view. The image of health food delivered in an ethos of virtuous business, which had been painstakingly curated in countless grocery isles over the years and projected in the PR narrative of his company, morphed into something of a farce: It was fine to use guerilla tactics in order to butcher your competition so long as you spared your lobsters the agony of a supermarket aquarium, and instead sold them precooked in recycled cardboard.
Now Facebook, whose founder has waxed lyrical about the merits of transparency, was revealed pursuing a clandestine scheme, with the help of a PR agency, to blot Google’s name by cajoling technology experts and reporters to criticize the search engine’s privacy practices. And, very much like Whole Foods, Facebook confronts charges of hypocrisy and finds itself forced to explain the blunder away, alongside its scathed PR agency.
The conclusion is obvious: Attempting to smear thy rival namelessly is a double-edged sword that can boomerang spectacularly. And history suggests that such practices are likely to be repeated time and again, needlessly searing good reputations and further casting the otherwise respectable craft of PR in a foul light.
Yet there are ethical, creative and more effective alternatives to confront competition through PR.
Consider the case of Facebook, which sought, in this instance, to raise privacy concerns about one of Google’s social-networking features. Since Facebook possesses a formidable population of users on a global scale and a potent sphere of influence to match, it can exploit its strong position in the industry as a bully pulpit—without being a bully—in order to advance better privacy practices at large.
For example, how about putting up a Facebook page dedicated to educating users about online privacy issues, helping them understand common disclosures and enabling them to voice concerns—including, but not limited to, concerns about Google? Or how about sponsoring a televised event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (streamed live to Facebook users) for discussing privacy rights and lapses in the era of social media?
Efforts like these, done in a dignified public fashion, would ultimately shed a limelight of scrutiny on Google, as they well should, and press it to account for its own privacy standards. At the same time, they would benefit Facebook enormously and help portray the company as a responsible corporate citizen dedicated to promoting awareness and education about privacy matters.
We will likely witness further PR debacles in the years to come. But the more PR practitioners respond to them by offering ethical yet nonetheless aggressive, smart and creative alternatives, the better we can tangibly demonstrate morality’s upper hand in the most beneficial PR terms. Unless we do, bad practices will continue to flourish, and our trade will become ever synonymous with the smear tactics of unscrupulous Washington politics.
Assaf Kedem is Director of Communications and a Senior Writer at AllianceBernstein. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.