There’s a dark cloud in the PR world in Washington, DC. It’s called astroturfing, the practice of creating false grass roots campaign create the impression of being spontaneous behavior.
Astroturf campaigns can be done traditionally, and increasingly online through social media. As CEO of Livingston Communications, I am increasingly recruiting new team members, which has caused me to network more with the local PR community. As I inquire about others social media efforts, it’s been a disappointing exercise in uncovering intentional astroturf, rookie mistakes and charlatans.
For the record, names and examples will not be mentioned because in some cases people’s jobs are at stake. But I will say the underhanded dirty nature of political PR continues to make me sick.
Consider astroturf in political campaigns, with advocacy groups like Swift Boat with questionable funding sources to attack candidates. This use of fake advocacy groups is a common practice here in Washington, and is usually done in deep secrecy. Companies, issues-oriented advocacy groups, trade associations and politicians fly under the radar, while they try to throw mud from a distance. While giving compelling cases, you should always dig a little deeper to see who comprises these advocacy groups.
Here’s one public example: In 2004 the FBI did just that with Saudi Arabia’sAlliance for Peace and Justice campaign, a violation of U.S. federal propaganda laws. What they found was local PR firm Qorvis. Allegations were made. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qorvis’s Michael Petruzzello "denied anything was done covertly," but Time reports "the Saudi role in the ads shocked Qorvis’ law firm, Patton Boggs, which also represents the Saudi embassy." I know this incident caused quite a stir locally.
In another example, one person admitted they knowingly executed a fake advocacy group attacking a political candidate vis a vis a blog in order to achieve client objectives. Another confidante lost their job when they refused to astroturf online, and was forced to sign a gag order for severance pay.
The Fall Guy
It’s clear that for many local firms, results supersede ethics. Obviously not enough of them get caught to prohibit widespread ethics violations. And when they do get caught, there’s a common PR practices to handle it. Of course, it involves throwing people under the bus.
The most common Washington practice of avoiding or projecting blame in astroturfing and other PR-related gaffes incidents is the Fall Guy. The last thing any executive wants is a John Mackey or Richard Nixon situation. This crisis PR trick involves using a villain as the responsibility holder, enabling everyone else to duck, avoiding culpability. And the public relents, satiated with the public execution of an individual’s reputation.
Let’s jog some names by you: Scooter Libby, Oliver North, Michael Brown and most recently’ FEMA External Affairs Director John Philbin (see Kami Huyse’s excellent report detailing another view of the fake news conference, an excellent example of the Fifth Estate at work). Some recent online examples: Target, Shelfari and Comcast.
I have always avoided the political PR scene in my 15 years here because of the general sliminess of political outreach. This lack of consciousness in the political arena is one of the many reasons why LComm serves technology and professional services clients.
Not every PR pro or agency acts like this. Far from it. There are great, quality shops here in DC like Widmeyer Communications ( I used to work there and have the utmost respect for Scott et al) and John Bell’s Ogilvy 360 practice.
At the same time, it’s pretty clear to me that astroturfing is not an individual case, and that it’s widespread across a significant minority of local agencies. And that includes some of the local technology PR firms, too. It really is the District of Corruption.
We can only talk about it and raise awareness. As more and more people refuse to tolerate unethical PR practices, this may simply come to pass. Or it just may always be a case that some people will put results before ethics.
To them I have an observation. Many decry the world’s oldest profession. But what’s the difference between selling your body and your soul? Isn’t there a book about this called Faust?