Why PR pros should worry about ‘Dark PR’

Some practitioners are taking opposition research tactics perfected in the political arena into the marketplace. Despite the ethical and legal perils, some are taking a calculated risk.

Worried co-workers gathered at computer

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.


3 Responses to “Why PR pros should worry about ‘Dark PR’”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    “First do no harm,” the Hippocratic Oath commands doctors.

    This doesn’t mean not to harm germs or cancer cells. Can we even imagine an ethical consideration that we should NOT do everything possible to kill germs or to defeat management’s adversary?

    Top Washington PR executives not only do PR that is dark but also–and gladly—even PR that is invisible! The ethical imperative is if you agree to take management’s money, give management your best shot, anything and everything within the law. Work nights and weekends when necessary, even after budgeted hours are used up, and wake up at night to work. Or be honest and tell management to get someone else.

    Killing can be good. In medicine, kill germs and kill cancer cells. In PR kill false rumors that could damage the client, kill phony arguments that seem to favor unduly restrictive regulation by government, and kill the credibility of communicators who lie about the client or client products. Kill unwise consumer beliefs or tempting but unwise excuses that are bad for the client.

    As doctors use scalpels and drugs to help patients, PR winners skillfully use the TRUTH to overcome the falsehoods of rivals and unfounded fears that could be bad for clients. As doctors use not only physical things to win but also reasoning, so should PR executives.

    PR is not a card game where what the hell some days you win and some days you lose. PR is a collection of intellect and skills that you use to WIN survival and money for the client as if your own life and future depended on your success. For those who feel this is too intense, one might say let them become poets only some of the best poetry is also intense.

    When a championship-winning football coach was asked, “Don’t you realize that winning isn’t everything?” he replied: “Yeah but losing isn’t anything!” Said General Douglas MacArthur: “In war there is no substitute for victory.”

    Also in PR. What PR is about–light, dark or gray–is victory again and again.

    Tita Cherrier says:

    PR stands for public relations. Relating to your client/community/public’s stories and developing the best means to share them. It’s about relationship-building with trust at the foundation. The difference with Dark PR is there are no ethics involved. Dark PR is about achievement at all costs…’victory again and again.’ Smart PR is colorless; ethics intact.

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Tita, you are 100% right about the importance of being ethical. Please judge whether it’s ethical for honest journalists and honest PR people to run negative stories when true.

    What makes PR dark, we can see from this excellent PR Daily report above, is not dishonesty but being negative or using anonymous sources. But it’s just not true that all Chinese are good at math, Jews are cheap, blacks are violent, or accused companies are guilty. So if you’re doing PR for the Chinese, Jews, blacks or accused people, you should be able to do a negative story to say so.

    If you uncover a good reason like a criminal conviction history why the public should doubt an accuser, you are serving the public and not just the accused if you do a negative story that presents the truth.

    Notice that activist accusers often don’t tell THE PERIL OF THE ALTERNATIVE. The accusers tell how the public will allegedly benefit if a law is passed so only American-made cars are sold here and if only drugs tested for at least five years can be prescribed, but the activists don’t reveal that this could mean cars would cost 25% more and that thousands of Americans will die from a disease that an FDA-approved drug could have cured. Also that if we ban foreign cars, foreign countries will likely ban American products costing us American jobs.

    A common fallacy in PR is that it’s not ethical to communicate “if the truth is against us.” Repeatedly there may be truths favoring our position and truths favoring the other side. What skilled PR is about and what wins is not just communication skills but also investigative journalism skills in finding and communicating the WHOLE truth, not just truths that seem to favor the other side.

    Freedom of the press is not jut to benefit publishers but to benefit the public that NEEDS and DESERVES the truth a free press reports. If news is accurate but negative, it’s ethical for journalists and for PR people to report that news. And even if it’s anonymous and doesn’t reveal your source. Journalists and PR people alike should arguably have the right to not disclose their sources.

    “Victory again and again” is a laudable objective for doctors, defense forces and PR people. Honestly achieved victory is good.

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