Astroturfing Online Reviews: 3 Reasons It’s A Bad Idea

TechCrunch reported yesterday that they had obtained evidence that a PR firm had “a team of interns to trawl iTunes and other community forums posing as real users, and has them write positive reviews for their client’s applications.”

AstroturfAs a PR professional, this is extremely disheartening to me. I guess on some level we all know this happens, but this is a great reminder that this kind of activity just isn’t acceptable.

Here are three reasons you won’t find me practicing this kind of behaviour:

Risk to the client

Some people in the post’s comments suggested that it’s PR professionals’ job to position their clients in the best way possible through legal means. The implication was that this activity was legal, so it was ok.

I would agree with their definition of a PR pro’s role to an extent, but I add “ethical” to the list of qualifiers. For me, that rules astroturfing out.

I have had clients ask me to write reviews for them, and have refused (and explained the rationale): Because our refusing protects them from featuring in articles like the one on TechCrunch. As a PR professional, I consider exposing a client to the risk of being featured in an article like this to be completely unprofessional. I haven’t had a single person push back after explaining this.

Risk to the PR person/agency

In fact, the risk goes both ways. As the firm involved in this specific instance is no doubt discovering, getting outed for this kind of behaviour isn’t pleasant. I don’t plan on tarnishing my reputation with this kind of activity.

It’s unethical

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to go to sleep at night knowing that I’ve done the right thing. Despite some peoples’ perceptions, going into PR doesn’t mean giving up your own ethics. I want to look at my ugly mug in the mirror and feel good about my work.

Remember – not all agencies will do this. As Brits like me (and Aussies) would say, it’s just not cricket.

(Image: Shutterstock)

  • Dave, you’re spot on regarding this unethical practice. The PR industry as a whole is trying to free itself from the “spin” and “flack” label it’s been carrying for years. It’s too bad a few bad apples are spoiling the entire bunch.

    This post also hits on the debate about agencies not understanding the social space. There are very few agencies are that are doing a great job right now with social media, while the rest are simply jumping in to say they can handle a client’s social needs. However, transparency, in my opinion, is the first rule that needs to be practiced.

    It’s a shame that this is going on; unfortunately, in today’s climate, lots of folks are desperate to gain business, keep business and stay relevant.

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  • You are a stand up dude. And PR should be very happy to have you on its side. I also applaud techcrunch for finding and outing such a despicable agency. What’s upsetting is that they will probably feel zero negative effects because of this. They probably wont loose any clients but they will get a significant boost in traffic to their site. I don’t think there should be online PR ethics police, but is there any solution to prevent these things for happening?

  • Kasey – you’re right. From a pure results perspective, there’s significant risk to the client from the kind of practice TechCrunch is talking about. Layer-on the ethical issues and the risk to your own reputation, and it becomes a complete quagmire.

    Marcus – you may be right. Unfortunately, there are bad apples in every barrel and they’re unlikely to ever go away.

  • Dave,

    Thank you for writing this. Like you, I find Astroturfing unethical and very damaging to the Public Relations practice’s collective reputation as a profession.

    The client that asks a PR firm to do fake product reviews is not the kind of client you want to have on your books. I am thankful TechCrunch outed the agency in question and focused the spotlight on the practice.

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  • Jesse David Hollington

    Some great thoughts, Dave, and it’s really too bad that all PR people aren’t as ethical as you. Sadly, even those who aren’t should realize the risks of playing the astroturfing game on *any* site, as it’s only a matter of time before it will catch up with you.
     
    As a site that focuses primarily on product reviews, we’ve been wrestling with astroturfing at iLounge for several years now, and it’s something we’re repeatedly policing. It became so bad on the actual reviews themselves that we were forced to completely shut down comments on the main site as a result (see iLounge Blocks Product Comment Astroturfing).
     
    From our perspective, there’s one other risk of being caught astroturfing… Companies who have repeatedly persisted in this have actually found their products excluded from consideration for review. There are thousands of iPod and iPhone-related products out there, and there’s rarely a point in reviewing a product that seems to require artificially-generated hype in order to promote or sustain it.
     
    The funny thing is that we’ve noticed for some time that a number of the Apps on the App Store didn’t seem to deserve the attention or placement that they were receiving compared to many of the other apps out there. This sheds a great deal of light on that.
     
    Sadly, unless Apple is willing to take similar steps to combat astroturfing within the App Store, I fear that the positive benefits from the astroturfing (ie, increased placement and resulting sales) will far outweigh the brief negative karma that has come from this revelation. Most consumers have ridiculously short memories when it comes to these things, and I suspect the majority of the iPhone App consumer base won’t even notice the TechCrunch article, much less actually care about it.

  • Jesse – sadly, you may be right – hence the practice continues.

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  • Samra Bufkins, APR

    I’m making this post required reading for the PR class I’m teaching at the University of North Texas.

  • You make this sound so simple – which leads me to believe you’re sincere – and I applaud you for this.

    I also agree with you 100 percent.

    It’s funny I recently commented on Steve Farnsworth’s blog that I’d be more than willing to represent Michael Vick because I didn’t have any ethical issue with doing so, yet ethically I wouldn’t allow myself to post unreal user comments. The PR business really is changing.

    Thanks for your insight Dave.

  • I It took me a while to get to it, but I hope you don’t mind that I reference your blog in my recent post.

    http://tonymackeypr.blogspot.com/2009/08/ghost-blogging-to-change-pr-more-than.html

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  • hawkinsandym

    So what if you know of a company who is doing this? Should you report them? If so, who do you report them to?

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