Monday’s issue of The Washington Post featured an article by staff writer Dave Eggen: Hacked e-mails show Web’s usefulness in dirty-tricks campaigns. The article outlines the “growing dark side to Washington’s lobbying and public relations industry:” online information-gathering and sabotage.
But is what seems like a black stain on the industry actually more common than people would think?
The article details federal contractors to a DC law firm, which works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. When emails from the contractors to the firm were WikiLeaked, all sorts of unethical tactics came to light: creating fake personas online, planting false documents online, and exploiting social media profiles for personal information.
Eggen cites industry experts, who say that this kind of work has increased and become more sophisticated as corporations, trade groups, and political parties “monitor” competitors. As this work almost always goes undetected, it’s hard to say how common it is.
I have a friend who works in the industry who routinely leaves falsified reviews and ratings of consumer products as part of her job. This is likely a common practice—but there’s virtually no way to trace it if done “correctly.”
In some ways, this type of thing makes perfect sense. After all, doesn’t everyone search for their organization’s new hires on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to see what to expect? Aren’t insurance companies using social media to validate premium hikes for risk-takers? But where does it cross the line from just research to research with a malicious intent? The article states that “actions that might break the rules of Facebook or other services do not necessarily violate federal law.” If there is no legal precedent, is it okay?
Of course, the answer is that no, it’s not okay. The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics clearly states that PR practitioners should “Be honest and accurate in all communications,” and “Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.”
Anyone working in the industry—no matter how passionate they are about their employer or client—should feel comfortable speaking up if they are being asked to do something that they feel is unethical.