‘Dark PR’ – PR’s Evil Twin and What to Do About It
A task force of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management – which consists of representatives from IABC, PRSA, CRPS, PRINZ, MEPRA, ICCO and PRCA – recently published a new set of principles which promotes both ethical practice and conduct for PR practitioners. Why is this relevant today? Some organisations and countries are increasingly resorting to using dirty tactics and smear campaigns to take down competitors or rival countries. One can even hire a firm which specializes in Dark or Black Public Relations (DPR), which essentially refers to the act of discrediting an individual, an organisation or an entire country with the aim to destroy their reputation and with it their credibility. DPR has slowly gained traction over the years and we’ve now reached a stage where the prevalence of DPR is, quite frankly, alarming.
According to a report from the Institute of Business Ethics, the proportion of U.K. employees who agree that their organisation “acts responsibly in all its business dealings” has dropped by 11% in the last five years and the proportion of employees who believe their organisation “lives up to its stated policy of social responsibility” has decreased by 14%. As you’ll see later in this article, decreasing ethical standards aren’t just a growing problem in Europe – it’s also gaining substantial ground in many other parts of the world.
But, who are the typical targets of Dark PR? Why are PR pros seen as less ethical? What do journalists have to do with Dark PR? And what can PR and communication professionals do to fight DPR? Read on to find answers to all these questions and more.
Dark PR: Typical targets and tactics
Typical targets of DPR include prominent figures in the corporate world, such as CEOs and founders of companies. In addition, DPR is often also used to discredit high profile activists, hacktivists, entire countries as well as political figures. But, as a matter of fact, almost everybody can become a target. There is a multitude of DPR tactics and techniques and these run the gamut from so-called honey traps, false content, email and social media manipulation, unauthorized leaks, negative reviews and exposées as well as sustained negative content campaigns.
This begs the question: how can one prevent themselves from becoming a target of DPR? There are certain steps that you can take, such as using secure passwords for your social media profiles and not sharing these passwords with anyone. That said, those who engage in DPR have plenty of tricks up their sleeves; even if they aren’t able to get into your social media accounts and use these to discredit you, they can easily set up entirely new websites to do the same. Some targets of such activities may respond either creating counterattack websites themselves or indeed using external agencies to help; an approach not recommended as a best practice for an effective online reputation management.
Dark PR across the world
DPR is a widespread problem across the world. Here are a few examples of DPR cases in the U.K., China, Russia and the USA:
Just last year it came to light that one of London’s leading PR agencies, Bell Pottinger, was paid £100,000 a month to create tension about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa. In carrying out its investigation, PRCA, the U.K.’s PR trade body, found that this campaign, to stir up racial tensions, was the worst breach of ethics in its history. The trade body promptly expelled Bell Pottinger, with General Director Francis Ingram stating that the work was on a “completely new scale of awfulness”, and that he has “never seen anything equal to it” in his years of running the PRCA.
One of the most prominent DPR cases in China happened in 2014, when Chinese conglomerate Tencent posted screenshots of internal Alibaba e-mails which included drafts of anti-Tencent stories. As it turned out, Alibaba was working on planting articles which discussed the supposed instability of the management team at WeChat, which is Tencent’s mobile instant messaging product.
Once the story broke, Alibaba took to Sina Weibo (a popular Chinese microblogging website) to fire back with accusations that Tencent was running a similar smear campaign against them. Interestingly enough, neither Alibaba nor Tencent bothered to deny the smear campaigns. If you ask us, this goes to show how widespread DPR has become in China.
In Russia, DPR is intrinsically linked to ‘political technology‘, which is a euphemism used in former Soviet Union states for what is essentially political manipulation. Perhaps the most telling example is how Russian President Vladimir Putin consistently uses social media propagandists and traditional media to support his narrative of Ukraine being unmanageable and out of control. Putin’s aide, Vladislav Surkov, has basically ‘pioneered a new genre of communications that mixes elements of branding, media and art theory, and postmodernism into a highly weaponized form of influence‘, something that is today referred to as ‘Surkism’. Among other things, Putin enlisted print and online journalists to disseminate stories of the transgressions carried out by Ukrainian extremists (all fabricated, of course). These journalists were awarded an Order of Service to the Fatherland for their efforts. Such efforts don’t come cheap: PRWeek reported that Russia has spent US$115 million on Western PR firms alone since 2000. To put that into context, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the 50 countries with the worst human rights violation records have spent $168 million for the same purpose since 2010.
The USA has its own versions of politically motivated manipulation techniques with ‘astroturfing and ratfucking‘ (apologies!) probably being the most well-known ones. Whereas ‘astroturfing‘ refers to what effectively are fake grassroots movements, ‘ratfucking’ is defined as using dirty tricks to undermine and discredit your political opponents.
However, there are many examples within the corporate world also. Back in 2011, Facebook was caught orchestrating a smear campaign against Google. Here’s how the story goes: Facebook hired a PR firm to plant stories which exaggerated the privacy fears about Google’s Social Circle product. The PR firm reached out to a well-known privacy advocate and asked him to put his name on an article they had written. This privacy advocate then posted his email exchanges with the PR firm online, exposing the campaign and with it Facebook’s involvement.
Are all journalists moral and impartial?
…and are all PR professionals shady and profit motivated?
Those in journalism frequently refer to PR as the “Dark Side”, with the general perception being that journalists who move into PR are “going rogue”. As SERV Behavioral Health System’s Director Of Communications Ida Furente Doolan puts it, those who take on a PR role or do communications work for a corporation will have to accept the fact that they may have to change their written material to meet with the ideals and mission of the organization.
That said, several ex-journalists who have made the move to PR have spoken out to state that PR isn’t that different from journalism after all. Eric Lewis, who left his job as a reporter after 11 years to start working in communications, said that regardless of whether he’s reporting on a breaking news story or drafting a press release or email for a journalist, writing a story that will connect with the reader is key.
Former BBC journalist Nafisa Sayani, who went on to work at broadcast PR firm The Relations Group, also notes that PR isn’t just about churning out press release after press release. PR professionals also advise their clients on marketing and media strategy, host interactive training webinars, and, like journalists, create original video, online and print content.
There’s no doubt that PR suffers from a reputation issue. The commonly held belief is that journalists are truth seekers who are determined to tell the stories of the day, while PR professionals are experts in colouring and slanting the truth in order to present a biased narrative. In short: journalism is noble and PR is not.
That said, it simply isn’t true that journalists are, across the board, honest and moral; neither is it true that all PR professionals are not. As we’ve discussed above (in the example for Russia!), journalists do also engage in DPR tactics. Oftentimes, firms specialising in DPR don’t even need to offer any explicit rewards or monetary incentives in order to get journalists to bite — many journalists can simply be enticed by a colourful story that’s prepackaged and comes with a great hook.
What can PR pros do about DPR?
Companies who are hit by DPR activities should take a two-pronged approach. Internally, the company should look at the origins and evolution of the posts against them and try to establish the background and motivations of these posts. Using the analysis of usernames and commonalities in language, you may be able to trace the negative posts back to a single source. At this point in time, companies may enlist technology professionals to identify IP addresses, and in doing so, review who might be behind the DPR attack.
Outwardly, the company should also execute against an effective communication plan so that they can shape how the story develops. If the company is at fault in any way, their best option is to apologise and talk about what they’re doing to make things right (instead of deflecting the blame).
As Jean Valin, Principal at Valin Strategic Communications and past chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management puts it: “As communicators and PR professionals, we have the potential to influence economies and individuals. This carries obligations and responsibilities to society and to organisations. Ethics must be at the core of our activity. In our world of fake news and concerns over privacy as artificial intelligence ramps us, we are at an ethical crossroads.“
More specifically, PR pros should not engage in DPR, regardless of how tempting it is, and do their best to caution their clients and colleagues against DPR as well. But, how should PR professionals build trust with clients, journalists and other stakeholders whom they work with? The Global Alliance’ task force has outlined 16 principles that are deemed universal and fundamental to the practice of public relations and communication management; you may find these principles here.
Targets of dark PR need not be victims. Executing against an effective plan to counter the possible attack is crucial. This plan could include a swift response to avoid negative publicity from getting worse and should also include elements of an effective PR crisis plan to help shape the developing narrative. Having the right attitude will help to stay calm and avoid aggravating a challenging situation even further.
Ethics versus Dark PR (DPR) – who wins the battle?
Given that new technologies are making it increasingly easy for firms (or standalone actors) to target individuals, companies and entire countries with DPR activities, it’s important for PR pros to familiarise themselves with how to deal with DPR attacks, communicate in the event of a crisis and – most importantly – act ethically themselves.