Grand Theft PR: Bogus Reviews Catches FTC Attention and Blights PR Image

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

Is CSR ‘Irrelevant’?

Monday’s Wall Street Journal article that makes the case against the idea of corporate social responsibility is provocative food for thought. But just as author Aneel Karnani argues that the reasoning for CSR is flawed, I believe there’s a few flaws in his reasoning. Here’s a couple of examples:

1. Karnani: “Large companies now routinely claim that they aren’t in business just for profits, they’re also intent on serving some larger societal purpose.” While some of this statement rings true, I think Aneel overstates the case. I’ve talked to a lot of CSR leaders, and profits are THE overriding goal. And I doubt if people primarily think of McDonald’s, Exxon Mobil or even Starbucks as economic or environmental saviors.

2. “…in cases where private profits and public interests are aligned, the idea of corporate social responsibility is irrelevant: Companies that simply do everything to boost profits will end up increasing social welfare.” Tell that to the people of the Gulf Coast.

3. “More often, profits and social welfare are at odds, and executives can’t be expected to heed the call for social responsibility at the expense of shareholders.” A number of studies have shown that the public, which includes a few shareholders, better responds to companies that partake in CSR activities. So profits and social welfare—at least in some cases—aren’t really at odds.

These are just a few points in the article that I feel are flawed. But this is not to say that the article has no merit. PR agency Gibbs & Soell’s 2010 “Sense & Sustainability Study,” which surveyed U.S. consumers and Fortune 1000 executives on their views of corporate efforts to improve the health of the environment, found that only a minority of execs (29%) see an overall strong corporate commitment to “going green.” So perhaps the majority of corporate execs might agree with Karnani’s view. What do you think of it?

–Scott Van Camp

Summer of Slam

It’s been a long hot summer here on the East Coast, and luckily for those of
us who follow PR, it’s been a hot time in terms of interesting crises. From
BP to Apple to HP and now JetBlue, there has always been something to jaw
about by the water cooler. Actually, JetBlue appears to be avoiding a
crisis, largely by keeping its trap shut about the situation with flight
attendant Steven Slater. It’s a strategy, I think, that’s underrated. In the
8/16 issue of PR News, there’s proof that JetBlue is weathering the crisis:
a PeopleBrowsr sampling of worldwide tweets in the days after the incident
shows a largely neutral attitude toward the JetBlue brand. Plus, our own
poll on PR News Online (taken online by more than 1,700 people) confirms it.
Who knows what brand or CEO will be caught next the headlights. Me? I can’t
wait.

–Scott Van Camp

Are We Heading Down a Slippery Digital Slope?

I’ve been reading The Wall Street Journal‘s interesting investigative series into online privacy, “What They Know,” and it’s more than a little disturbing. Technology seems to have run amok, and perhaps we should catch up to it and put the brakes on. Consider one of the findings by the WSJ investigative team: Looking at the 50 most popular U.S. Web sites, the team found that most of the sites were placing intrusive tracking applications on their visitors’ computers—in some instances more than 100 at a time. “It’s totally anonymous, we don’t collect people’s names,” say these sites and tracking technology vendors. But the fact is, they collect an amazing amount of data on us, and taking names is probably one or two steps away. Today’s installment talks about stalkers exploiting cellphone tracking technology to find their victims. Where does PR fit in to this? Well, collecting information on peoples’ Web surfing and buying habits—as well as geo-location techniques—fall into the marketing category, and as we all know, the line between marketing and PR is blurring. Do you think we’re going too far with these tracking tools, and should there be some regulation to stop it?

–Scott Van Camp

Woe is Journalism: Newsweek is ‘Worth’ Less Than a Latte while Plagiarism is Alive and Kicking

It is never a good thing for journalists to hear that a magazine that once generated $30 million in revenues three years ago was sold for maybe a buck.  But at least Newsweek was saved, and that it was, when the Washington Post Company yesterday agreed to sell Newsweek (saddled with tens of millions of dollars in debts and market share losses) to Sidney Harmon, the 91-year-old founder of audio behemoth Harmon Industries and a well-heeled philanthropist.  What was once a highly respected weekly, Newsweek is going through a serious media identity crisis despite the fact that it employs great writers and it even has a web site that is updated multiple times a day despite the “week” in its name.  Back to great writers: does it really matter anymore? (Yes).

More disturbing than the Newsweek “development” is an Aug 1 article in the New York Times titled: “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in the Digital Age.” To summarize: many students think it’s OK to lift passages from Web sites, wrap some original sentences around it, and call it a term paper.  If there’s a really great paragraph on Wikipedia and there’s no author and you couldn’t have said it any better, why not just copy and paste?  Only 29 percent of students consider it “seriously cheating” to do this, according to one study quoted in the NY Times article.  In the article, Teresa Fishman, who heads up the  Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said: “Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author. It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.” And some of these students, who still want to be journalists despite the fire sales going on for big-branded magazines, perpetuate the mindset.  Just today, it was reported that an article from the NY Daily News was lifted from the Daily Mail of the UK.  The Daily News admitted to an “inadvertent admission of credit” in reporting on Kate Winslet’s divorce to Sam Mendes (really, why do you need to plagiarize a story on this?).

In the PR world, there is disagreement about whether a press release is fair game to reporters. Can you lift a paragraph from a press release, not source it, and package it, byline and all, as a news story? Most PR professionals not only say “yes,” but “yes, please do!”  Generally, it is an accepted practice among lazier journalists to do just that: go shopping in the press release for well-written sentences as a short cut to crafting a good piece of journalism.  There remains a crop of journalists out there who know better and do better, and it is this crop that PR needs to support, foster and build relationships with. They understand good reporting, will be fair and accurate, and make you and your company look good. That is, if you are good.

What do you think: Press releases fair game for journalists to cut and paste?

-Diane Schwartz

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