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 Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.