Advocacy Ethics

Astroturfing Rears Its Ugly Head in Ticket-Scalping Battle

Concert fans frustrated by rampant online ticket scalping may have breathed a sigh of relief this summer when two new groups, the Fans First Coalition and the Fan Freedom Project, announced they would become advocates on behalf of consumers.

Fans First Coalition, whose mission is to protect ordinary consumers from ticket scalpers, has been supported by a number of prominent musicians, including Jennifer Hudson, R.E.M., Maroon 5 and the Dixie Chicks. The Fan Freedom Project, likewise, claims to represent the interests of concertgoers.

But as The New York Times noted in a recent front-page expose, although the groups’ efforts are admirable, the manner in which those efforts are presented is anything but. In essence, the groups claim to be representing the best interests of consumers, when in reality, they are really looking out for their own bottom lines. It’s astroturfing at its worst.

The disparity between these groups’ stated intentions and their actual work caught my attention as chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). In a letter to The New York Times editor that was published July 31, I wrote that, “The fact that two competing private companies — Live Nation Entertainment and StubHub — are covertly backing these organizations represents a clear conflict of interest to their purported purpose of advocating on behalf of consumers and thwarting rampant scalping.

“What is particularly troubling about these efforts is the lack of forthright disclosure from either company, as well as their Washington-based public relations firms, as to their true motivations, sponsors and goals.”

Situations such as this one have been addressed by PRSA’s 2008 Professional Standard Advisory on the use of deceptive practices while representing front groups.

PRSA reminds those organizations that represent public interests that open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society. That is one of the fundamental principles in our Code of Ethics. How can consumers who are seeking the best quality and price for events tickets possibly be fully informed when the two main firms that sell those tickets are engaging in potentially deceptive advocacy practices aimed more at padding their revenues, rather than representing the best interests of consumers?

Disclosure of critical information, such as the sponsors for causes and interests that are being represented, is also vitally important, as noted in the Code. Conflicts of interest — whether real, potential or perceived — should be avoided in order to build the trust of clients, employers and publics. Lastly, public relations professionals should strive to enhance the profession, working constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in public relations.

As PS-7 points out, representation of front groups with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants constitutes improper conduct and malpractice under our Code of Ethics, and it should be avoided.

As public relations professionals, we adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of our clients, dealing fairly with all and advocating for our clients in a responsible manner. What these “advocacy” groups are doing is clearly anything but in the best interest of consumers. Their work is an affront to fundamental concepts of ethical communications we hold dearly.

Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and an associate professor of communication at Buffalo State College.

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