What’s behind the falsehood in recent media ethics cases?

When I talk about ethics in public relations – and I talk about it a lot – it seems it usually comes down on some level to a question of what is real and what is fake. Ethical public relations tries to shine a light on what is genuinely good. Unethical public relations tries to create false impressions.

A few recent items that made the news serve as good examples.

The restaurant chain Chipotle recently came under some scrutiny when it was forced to admit that it faked its own Twitter hacking. I’m not talking about tweeting something ill-advised and then claiming you’d been hacked. (Are you listening, Carlos Danger?) I’m talking about intentionally tweeting what you think a hacker would tweet, and leaving the impression that a hacker did it.

Now to be honest, this is the sort of thing that could just be in good fun if it was done cleverly enough, sort of like an April Fools Day joke that you intended all along to own up to once you’d had some laughs with it. But that’s not what Chipotle did. Their “hacked” tweets included the raucously clever:

“Hi sweetie, can you please pick up some lime, salt and onions? twitter”


“Mittens13 password leave”

Do you get it? Neither do I. It’s as if someone just decided to post something as random and inexplicable as possible to get people talking: “Ooh, look! Chipotle’s Twitter feed has been hacked!”

I guess this is from the school that says all publicity is good publicity. I didn’t go to that school. And now it will be awhile before people feel confident they can believe what Chipotle tweets.

Wal-Mart engaged in a different kind of fakery last year when they sent one of their own PR person to a company press conference to pose as a journalist and ask softball questions. How did Wal-Mart get busted? When the very same PR person showed up soon thereafter at another press event, this time clearly functioning in her PR capacity, which didn’t escape the attention of the journalists who had been at the first event.


What is it they say about lies begetting more lies, because once you start down the road of lying you always have to worry about covering your tracks?

The thing both of these incidents and many others have in common is that the companies involved do not appear to have been very confident in the PR value of their own true story. And that’s a mystery to me. Each is quite successful in its own way. Granted, Wal-Mart comes under some legitimate criticism for some of its business practices, but do they really doubt their own ability to answer those criticisms without putting a fake-friendly reporter in the room?

A lot of the time this sort of thing happens because, while companies may believe in the rightness of their own business practices, they don’t feel confident they can get that across in a way that will result in the media reporting it as they think it should be reported. So they play tricks to try to manipulate their way to what they’re after. Social media is theoretically a great vehicle because you can say whatever you want without a filter. But if you’re not confident in your ability to do that effectively on the up-and-up, you start playing games, and possibly playing fast-and-loose with the truth, since the falsehood you have dreamed up just might prove to garner more attention than the dumb old truth.

I am not opposed to all PR and marketing gimmicks, and I’m not always opposed to a good-natured practical joke that is designed to let the truth come out. But any time you start thinking you have to create and maintain a false impression, I’d say you’ve got at a minimum, one of two problems.

The first is that you’re not confident the positive truth about your organization is interesting enough to sell as a compelling story. The second is that you doubt your ability to tell that positive truth in an honest and up-and-up fashion.

If either or both of these are true, you had better do some fundamental re-assessing. Because a PR strategy that is based on even the tiniest hint of deception is 100 percent guaranteed to backfire on you. And I’d be willing to bet that you don’t need the deception at all. You just need to see how and why you should believe in your own real story.

Ann Willets, CEO, Utopia Communications

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Ann Willets


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