Not long ago, journalists, PR practitioners and their clients jousted with each other along an assumed set of guidelines. Let’s call it “White PR.”
Journalists reported objectively what they learned through their own enterprise. PR people developed positive stories and support materials about their clients and sought to gain journalists’ attention through relationships and by packaging the stories in ways that served journalists’ interests, made their jobs easier and made them look good in the eyes of their editors. Clients hired agencies to promote their agenda with the belief it would be done in respectable ways.
They called us flacks, we called them ink-stained wretches, and everyone met in the bar after work.
Today, a negative counterpoint to that largely positive process is getting louder every day in the form of “Dark PR.” Research and placement of negative news stories. Anonymously drafted attack pieces from third parties. Creation of negative or misleading content on small but influential web sites known to spark coverage in higher profile media. Influence payments to unscrupulous “journalists.” Generation of large volumes of negative social media. Flooding search results with negative content to drive down positive results.
These are just examples of a growing and risky new category for an industry that evolved by putting a positive angle on everything.
Was it Dark PR?
Today, if a business suddenly finds itself the subject of intertwined bad news events and amplified media coverage damaging to its reputation, it could well be the target of “Dark PR” engineered by a rival firm and its agency.
Dark PR is migrating from its traditional hovels of politics and espionage to the arenas of corporate, business and marketing communications, where positive messages have traditionally prevailed. Today, a client may ask a practice to define, damage and destroy a business rival through overt or covert activities. A new burden falls on PR practitioners who now must determine their ethical and business limits when Dark PR enters the stage.
In this hyped-up world where norms of institutional and personal behavior are decimated every day, it should be no surprise that the dark arts once confined to “opposition research” by political campaigns are now being weaponized in the PR world. The reason is simple. They work.
How Dark PR works
Opposition research is the feedstock for the negative political ads in mainstream and on social media that everyone loves to hate. Any experienced political operative will attest that when a tough negative ad goes on the air the poll numbers move—overnight.
What’s more, the fruits of opposition research are served on silver platters to reporters desirous of breaking news or third-party interests seeking to cultivate havoc against an opponent.
Dark PR has wormed its way into the highest levels of corporate communications. As The New York Times reported in November 2018, facing scathing criticism over its failure to protect users’ personal data, Facebook hired a PR firm run by a former political operative to discredit anti-Facebook protesters as anti-sematic, publish derogatory stories about rivals Google and Apple and encourage reporters to investigate alleged links between the anti-Facebook movement and activist philanthropist George Soros.
Once exposed, Facebook severed its relationship with the firm, which now operates under a different name.
How far will you go?
For communications practitioners the question is how far they will go, personally and professionally. There is the hard stop, of course, at legal risk and commercial versus protected speech. But assuming no prudent communicator would purposefully violate those standards, it comes down to matter of personal choice and business risk.
Can a reputable public relations firm creating positive message campaigns for its clients yield to the dark side? What happens to that firm’s business, reputation and client list when it’s publicly ridiculed for catalyzing destructive, demeaning articles, social media posts and conspiracy theories targeting the competition?
Perhaps the practical answer for communicators wanting a piece of the Dark PR action is a separate business, separate office, separate staff, same owner. But for the individual it comes down to a matter of conscience. How do they want to be known by their peers, by the community and by their family? How well can they sleep at night?
Each person will have their own answer to this professional ethics quandary. For some it will be a complicated, nuanced and perhaps rationalized answer.
For others it’ll be quite simple: Ethically, if it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, it probably isn’t.
Bob Gold is the president and CEO of Bob Gold & Associates.