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August 27, 2010
No Sleaze, Please
Most Flack Me readers won't need this nudge, but every so often we like to remind folks that PR is an ethical field, not a sleazy one. The prompting for this post comes from a newly announced settlement between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a California PR firm, Reverb Communications, Inc. 

In its complaint just settled, the FTC charged that Reverb used deceptive practices when its employees posted endorsements of video games whose makers were Reverb clients. The endorsements looked as though they came from ordinary customers, not a hired PR shop. 

In the settlement, advises Computerworld, Reverb is barred from misrepresenting that a user or endorser is an independent customer if he or she is actually an employee, unless that's disclosed. This ought to be a no-brainer. The code of ethics maintained by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) calls for such transparency, noting that PR practitioners are to "protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information," "reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests," and "disclose financial interests in a client's organization."

Reverb, notes TG Daily in a post on the same situation, claimed that "while staff had posted reviews, they'd done so after buying the games with their own money and playing them in their own time." Without, at least, any expense reimbursement? Even if employees did buy the games plain and simple, they have an obvious interest in their success. Shame. 

On its website under "What We Do," Reverb says, "Using precise messaging and calculated marketing campaigns, we are able to drive consumer and industry demand for our clients' products, resulting in increased product sales."

Sounds as though this marketing got a bit too calculated.

Computerworld explains that "online public relations or advertising campaigns disguised as grassroots support for a product are often called 'astroturfing.'" Any such deception goes against PR's professional tenets. 

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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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