From my “What were they thinking?” files I present the case of Reverb Communications which was fined by the Federal Trade Commission on August 26 for engaging in deceptive advertising by planting false reviews of their clients’ video games on the Apple itunes store. Tracie Snitker, a PR exec with California-based Reverb, noted in a statement that “It became apparent that we would never agree on the facts of the situation.” The accusation from the FTC is that Reverb, which specializes in product launches for videogames, had its interns, posing as ordinary game-playing folk, post glowing reviews of new video games from their clients.
This ruling puts into play the FTC’s new guidelines re endorsements/reviews. Clearly Reverb was not the first to break these rules and won’t be the last (See the “Rules Were Meant to Be Broken” file). This incident, however, points to a more important and pressing situation for PR firms worldwide. It comes down to ethics and reputation. What Reverb purportedly did was unethical. Whether the unnamed client knew or cared is another story. The reputation of PR firms, at least for a NY minute, will be tarnished because of behavior like this. It is beholden on all communicators to take note of this incident and not be tempted to hide behind the world wide social media web to prove a product or service is awesome.
Lastly, there’s a small element of this Reverb story that is gnawing at me. Apparently many or all of the fake reviewers were the interns at the firm. They probably had little clue that what they were doing was wrong, and their activities might have been validated by client approval and additional wins by the agency. Now they need to unlearn what Reverb taught them and hopefully start over with another PR agency or department. PR leaders: Game on!
– Diane Schwartz