Monday, 1 June 2009

Behave yourself

All human advances seem to come with an inbuilt temptation to bad behaviour. Social media, despite its often high-minded presentation, is no different and offers new hazards to PR practitioners attracted to the dark side of communications.

'Astroturfing' is the suitably new media term for the shady practice of creating a blog, website or other platform as a front for another organization. The PR Conversations blog has an interesting reference to this phenomenon in a Q and A with a prominent PR agency CEO.

The Chartered Institute for Public Relations rightly takes a dim view of such tactics and has added a special social media section to its code of conduct (note references to 'flogs', 'white hat SEO', 'black hat SEO' and other anti-social behaviour).Yet while astroturfing projects a sense of organized conspiracy, the freedoms and ease of access offered by social media surely open up a host of lower-level but equally questionable ethical developments.

Is it right to lift material from an individual's Facebook page and publish this in other media without their permission? When does reading blogs and social media chat by PR practitioners shift from innocent participation and environment scanning to eavesdropping? What protection do individuals have from PR people intervening in their chat to steer and influence debates? Does anonymity in the blogosphere and in web comments undermine the whole ethos of wider access and stronger freedom of expression?

Phillips and Young in Online Public Relations (p.226) raise a fundamental question: 'What is the function of public relations in this contested area of message exchange? Is it really about facilitating an exchange of information through a model of two-way symmetry? Or is it about persuasion through the projection of messages and partial truths designed to encourage behaviours and attitudes favourable to the client?'

Bit of both, anyone?


  1. Astroturfing is not really a new media term, if you bellieve Wikipedia (which you might as well on this matter) it was used in 1985.

  2. Thanks Derek. The Wikipedia entry is extensive and has many examples of nefarious PR activity. It notes that 'it has become easier to structure a commercial astroturfing campaign in the electronic era because the cost and effort to send an e-mail (especially a pre-written, sign-your-name-at-the-bottom e-mail) is so low.' So the barrier of entry to the dark side of PR has been lowered by new media.

  3. Agree that "new media" (a term I hate) opens up new opportunities for astroturfing.

  4. I'm not a fan of the term 'new media' either. But what is the alternative shorthand for differentiating between web/blogging/twitter etc and trad channels? Social media also irritates me. What is the converse? Anti-social media? Mind you, I still find the term 'press officer' grating. Perhaps we need a complete overhaul of terminology?