Ethics

What does the NY AG Astroturfing news mean to communications agencies?

Editors Note: This blog originally appeared on the MSLGroup website.

The answer to the crackdown on fake online reviews:

  • For ethical agencies – nothing at all.
  • For unethical organizations – it lets them know there may be a financial impact beyond dissatisfied customers, particularly if other Attorney Generals follow suit.
  • For those that weren’t aware of the issue – it may serve as a wake-up call and shed some light on this increasing problem.

Let’s take a step back. On Monday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that 19 New York companies have admitted to “astroturfing” — although I prefer the term fake reviews, for A) astroturfing is associated most frequently with front groups, and B) it is a trademarked term — in soliciting and posting fake reviews on sites such as Yelp.

The 19 companies have agreed to pay more than $350,000 in penalties for breaking laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices. Some of the 19 businesses appear to be companies and some are agencies/consultancies offering services to companies.

According to what I read in the Christian Science Monitor some companies knowingly went to great lengths, spoofing IP addresses and setting up fake user IDs for fictitious people. This is more than just a few bad apples. A Business Insider story today, brought a Gartner report to my attention in which Gartner predicted in 2012 that 10% of online reviews will be fake by 2014.

While Gartner makes some interesting points, I have spoken to a number of companies about this issue over the years, and the vast majority of them would never consider fake reviews. Even the ones that don’t dismiss it out of hand, tend to justify considering it because they say their competitors are doing it. (It’s the steroids in baseball argument – if others are cheating, I need to cheat too).

Let me be clear. Fake reviews as a public relations tactic are never appropriate. MSLGROUP does not support it, and the PRSA Code of Ethics and two of its Professional Standards Advisories are adamantly against it (PSA-8 and PSA-7). The practice violates four code provisions and three professional values. PSA-8 makes it explicit, “The use of deceptive identities or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants to further the objectives of any group constitutes improper conduct under the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and should be avoided.”

Like many, I take most online reviews with some grain of salt. I tend to look for volume of rankings and if the writing makes sense and is more than a sentence or two.

So what should ethical businesses do?

It’s not rocket science – disclose and don’t post fake reviews.

But what are some positive best practices?

1)      Ask your customers, and ask again. Ask in person, via email, via Facebook, via pop ups on the Web page. Online reviews are gold – but they are best generated by providing an outstanding product or experience and building strong relationships.

2)      Make it easy for your customers to post reviews – post links to your listings and suggest they share their opinion

3)      Respond to the negative critiques. I have been swayed by companies that post responses to negative reviews and have given them a chance.

Aside from the obvious, what should a company NOT do:

a)      Have interns leave fake reviews and claim they are not employees so it is OK. The interns are working on behalf of an organization either for credit or fee. Fake reviews are not OK.

b)      Run a contest for good reviews or offer a discount for a review.

What do you think of the news? Will it have an impact?

Mark W. McClennan, APR is a senior vice president with Schwartz MSL Boston where he heads its Consumer Technology Practice. He serves on the North American Digital Executive team for MSLGROUP. Mark is also a member of the PRSA National Board of Directors where he serves as the liaison to its Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

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