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When Listening Becomes Monitoring
By: Doug Bedell
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Can we agree that it's not a good idea for public relations firms to be hired to monitor groups about which a client is anxious or unhappy? Gauging the opinion scene is one thing. Being hired to report on the doings of a given organization is another. That's not very relational and contributes to giving PR a shady name. 

The concern arises from a Globe and Mail report from Quebec that National, Canada's largest public relations firm, was hired by the province's automobile insurance board to monitor the activities of the Front Commun Motocycliste, a group of motorcycle owners upset by "huge insurance rate hikes."

"The public relations firm National was granted a contract to investigate the activities of the Front Commun Motocycliste, which had set up kiosks at a Quebec City motorcycle show," according to the report.

The surveillance duty left National in the position of submitting a two-page report after observing the group at the bike show. "The report stated," says The Globe and Mail,  "that the motorcycle owners were 'dynamic and aggressive in their approach' with visitors."

A spokeswoman for the automobile insurance board said "We granted a contract to the firm National to go out and listen to what the groups were saying and to feel the pulse of the movement."

Come on. Couldn't the insurance board have sent a staffer or two to the show to gather their own impressions? Is this something a PR firm should be associated with? We think not.

A couple of months ago Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security came under fire for hiring the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) to assess feared terrorist threats in the state. An assortment of protest groups found themselves included in the monitoring, let out a howl, and the Homeland Security Office backed down. At least, however, Israeli-based ITRR isn't a public relations firm.  

In Quebec, there's a bit of controversy, even, on how much National was paid for its motorcycle monitoring assignment. "The Parti Québécois said in the National Assembly that the government’s move cost $6,000," The Globe and Mail reports, but the automobile insurance board released documents showing that the contract cost $2,304."

No place, as we said, for a PR firm to be. Gauging the relational climate is one thing. Listening is a prime PR function (although one would think government agencies should be doing that themselves). But to appear to be monitoring a given organization is unfortunate.  



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About the Author
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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