Online ethical dilemma: Should public relations practitioners engage in astroturfing by posting positive comments under pseudonyms to help their employers? Astroturfing is a temptation organizations face regularly. Let’s say a boss asks an employee to write and post multiple positive reviews about a company’s product online. Is it ethical for employees to fail to inform the public of their interest in the company?
A pressure commonly associated with astroturfing is the fear of becoming unemployed as a result of your ethical standards. It is possible the boss may seek out an employee capable of performing these unethical acts. It is possible that the employee could convince the employer it is a bad idea. However, this situation might be uncomfortable.
Reverb Communications, a public relations firm based in Twain Harte, Calif., had employees post positive reviews on Apple’s iTunes store about new video games. False comments made by employees such as “one of the best” and “a home run” possibly tricked customers into purchasing the product. The employees failed to disclose their interest in the video games and posted positive comments under pseudonyms. This is unethical because of the lack of transparency. As public relations practitioners, our main objective is to strengthen the public’s trust by being honest and straightforward.
Astroturfing is defined by PRSA as the “Representation of front groups with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants,” and, “fake grassroots, which means that an organization pays people to pretend like they are interested in a product, service or political cause to create an image of grassroots support.”
Like PRSA, I believe astroturfing is unethical and morally wrong. Misrepresentation to deceive the public is unacceptable. Public relations practitioners strive to earn and maintain the public’s trust. Astroturfing goes against the PRSA Code of Ethics. Public relations professions must remain transparent. If possibly, persuade the employer to do the right thing. However, if this is impossible, a rainy day fund is essential while working in the field of PR. If asked by a boss to take place in astroturfing or other unethical acts, it is better to lose your job than your credibility. The Internet and the public do not forget.
Michael G. Cherenson, APR, 2009 chair and CEO of PRSA, also opposes the use of astroturfing. Cherenson recently installed a “rapid response team” to respond to astroturfing. He believes PRSA must remain a respected voice within the profession of public relations. To do so, deceptive tactics such as the use of front groups or astroturfing must be eliminated.