Astroturfing: Time to walk the talk

Last month’s anti-astroturfing initiative by Australian PR bloggers Trevor Cook and Paull Young got off to a good start with plenty of commentary in support of the idea.

The supporters list now shows the names of 32 people who have signed up to publicly support this grassroots campaign, intended to throw a spotlight on an insidious practice that is the opposite of transparency yet is dressed up as such.

Those 32 names are communicators who are bloggers, academics, practitioners and students. It includes two highly influential names – David Weinberger and Seth Godin.

The list also includes the names of four PR agencies who have publicly stated their commitment to the campaign statement – Altyris, Jackson Wells Morris, Flatiron Communications LLC, and Voce Communications.

Kudos to these four.

Conspicuously absent, however, is any of the big-name PR firms.

Perhaps Keith Jackson of Jackson Wells Morris may embarrass some of them into publicly stating their support for anti-astroturfing and this campaign.

He’s started spotlighting some of these firms by posting extracts from their vision/mission/here’s how we behave statements that convey those firms’ positions on ethics in PR, and issued a challenge to each of them to publicly support the anti-astroturfing campaign.

Keith has challenged two firms so far – Weber Shandwick Worldwide and Fleishman-Hillard Inc. More to come, he says.

One PR agency who might have a problem publicly supporting the campaign is DCI Group if reports on how they allegedly were behind the Al Gore’s Penguin Army (supposedly) viral video on YouTube turn out to be true.

Then again, here’s a great opportunity for DCI to set their ethics record straight.

I’d like to see our professional associations also getting openly involved with this. IABC, CIPR, PRSA, for example. Why wouldn’t they?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. David Phillips

    I don’t think there is any doubt that CIPR will be a player in this debate and will make it very hard for its members who flout the rules. Colin did make the comment on his interview on For Immediate Release.

    I guess there will be some work done on the legal side of this activity. It is very hard not to avoid Passing Off when Astroturfing. Passing Off extends well beyond IP and was first used to prevent what we call Astroturfing in political campaigns in the 18th century. It is illegal in the UK.

  2. John Mims, APR

    I’m sure that PRSA will support it – in 5 years or so.

    I’m increasingly frustrated by PRSA’s falling behind the times. Although they inundate their members will teleseminars and programs about blogging and podcasting, they have yet to implement a blog or podcast. Instead, they have a lame survey asking “What info would be useful on this site?” The choices: Sources, PR Blogs, Research/Surveys or Spokespersons. The poll: It’s on the media page. They have yet to recognize that their members (their most important asset) might benefit from communications that aren’t considered by many to be spam.

  3. Craig Jolley

    I can think of several reasons the associations will not want to get openly involved. For one, unless/until the big name firms publicly sign on it could pit the associations against some of their larger, visable company members.

    Second, if/when the associations come out against it they will face a conundrum on what level of position they are going to take. Will their position be a simple one of support for the overall concept or will they take a harder stand indicating that its practice runs counter to profession ethics?

    And then, if they take the second, profession leadership stand, will they be prepared to back it up by prosecuting firms/individuals for ethics violations? Of course, this isn’t good for membership numbers when you start *potentially* casting stones at your own members.

    I therefore don’t see any association stepping fully up to the plate on this. They might go as far as making a statement that Astroturfing is not professional and shouldn’t be done, but they won’t go any further.

    Unlike the medical and law professions who can – and have – barred practicioners for violations that hurt the credibility of the profession (even when the violations are illegal) when have you known any communications/PR association that has taken a similar stand?

  4. neville

    I tend to agree with you, Craig, re associations. Easy to bang the drum and call for associations to get publicly involved, as I did in my post, but it is never a simple as that for reasons such as you’ve outlined.

    Which is one reason, David, why I’m a bit cynical re CIPR. How much of a player will they be, and when? Same for PRSA, in fact.

    An expression of support for the campaign would be quite easy for any association to do, I would have thought.

  5. Paull Young

    It would be great for the professional associations to state their support for the campaign, and there are actions they can take in support short of taking aim at the failings of their own members.

    Surely the professional associations could play an active role in promoting debate about topics such as astroturfing, and educate practitioners so they understand why practices such as astroturfing are indefensible.

    I’ve been surprised by how many communicators have said that they were unaware that astroturfing existed, or have expressed confusion about exactly what it is and why it’s a negative practice.

    Judging by these reactions I’m sure that the professional actions could play a valuable role in educating our profession about the pitfalls of poor ethical practice – and how to avoid it.

    However, it would be admirable for the associations to take a stronger stance on ethics – no matter how difficult that may be in practice.

  6. neville

    I agree, Paull, re ethics. Each of the associations has a code of practice that clearly states the behaviours by which members agree to be bound. I don’t know about CIPR or PRSA, but in the case of IABC, every time you renew your membershp, you have to affirm that you agree to follow the code of ethics.

    In fact, I think IABC’s code of ethics in particular would be a good blueprint for some kind of international standard.

    One thing every association could do is more proactively promote their codes. Remind members of such standards.

  7. Michael Cherenson, APR

    Thought you might find PRSA’s 2004 statement helpful.

    — Mike Cherenson, APR
    Member, PRSA Board
    Chair, Advocacy Advisory Board
    Liaison, Board of Ethics and Professional Standards


    Professional Standards Advisory PS-3 (August 2004)


    TO: Members of the Public Relations Society of America

    FROM: PRSA Board of Directors – PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

    RE: Professional Standards Advisory PS-3 (August 2004) – “Front” Groups

    All PRSA members pledge adherence to the Society’s Member Code of Ethics. As issues arise relating to the practice of public relations, the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) is charged with providing guidance on such issues within the framework of the Code provisions. The PRSA Board of Directors then provides these guidelines through professional standards advisories. The PRSA Member Code of Ethics may be found online at .

    ISSUE: Representation of front groups with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants.

    BACKGROUND: As this year’s political campaigns intensify, a variety of organizations – known as “front” groups – will surface on behalf of issues and candidates blindly sponsored by industries, organizations and individuals. PRSA members are reminded of the PRSA Code provision, “Disclosure of Information,” that is based on the premise that open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society. The provision states that a member shall:

    Be honest and accurate in all communication.
    Act promptly to correct erroneous communication for which the member is responsible.
    Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
    Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
    Disclose financial interest such as stock ownership of the client organization.
    Avoid deceptive practices.

    RELEVANT SECTIONS OF THE PRSA CODE: At least three Code provisions and three professional values relate to this issue. They are:

    Code provisions

    Free Flow of Information. Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.

    Conflicts of Interest. Avoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers and the publics.

    Enhancing the Profession. Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

    Professional Values

    Honesty. We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
    Fairness. We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public.
    Advocacy. We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.

    EXAMPLES: (Hypothetical examples provided to help in the front group recognition process.)

    Citizens for Tougher Tobacco Laws* (committed to passing legislation in every state that pre-empts all local smoking legislation resulting in lighter state standards)
    National Association for Good, Honest, Conservative Politicians* (committed to the defeat of liberal elected officials)
    Coalition for Better Food* (sponsored by farm interests dedicated to softening legislation on feed lot pollution)
    Automotive Safety Advocates* (coalition of auto parts manufacturers lobbying to lessen regulation on auto repairs at the state level nationwide)
    Sustainable Earth* (coalition of business organizations and interests committed to fighting tougher environmental legislation)
    PEACE People Everywhere Against Coercive Education* (religious organizations committed to getting prayer into schools)

    *Hypothetical organization

    RECOMMENDED PRACTICE: PRSA members should recognize that assisting front groups that represent undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants constitutes improper conduct under the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and should be avoided.

  8. neville

    Michael, thanks for posting the code.

    That is a big help, undoubtedly, in reinforcing the fact that PRSA does uphold ethical standards by virtue of the code. A clear expectation if not requirement that members do. I’m an IABC member and IABC has something similar, with the requirement that members uphold the code of practice.

    All well and good.

    Yet such things would surely pack greater punch if PRSA’s (and IABC’s) name were added to the list of supporters of the anti-astroturfing campaign at the New PR Wiki.

    How about it?

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