Interns Caught in Ethics Scandal

In case you missed the uproar this weekend, Techcrunch, a popular technology blog that often reports about bad public relations practices, posted a story that alleges a public relations firm uses its interns to post positive reviews on the iTunes app store for clients.

According to Techcrunch, interns monitor message boards and gauge online communities —fairly common for interns working in the digital space — but the lines of ethics and transparency are crossed when these interns post pre-scripted reviews of client products without disclosing the relationship. It’s pretty clear that these actions are not in accordance with PRSA’s Code of Ethics. This practice is known as astroturfing, and according to Wikipedia, is defined as “formal political, advertising or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous ‘grassroots’ behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass.” This example is the most recent in a string of astroturfing scandals that tarnish the image of public relations.

Last week, PRSA Chair and CEO Mike Cherenson weighed in on astroturfing on the blog Politico. Though the timing is uncanny, Cherenson makes it clear that this is not an acceptable practice in the public relations profession and violates the Code of Ethics.

If you’re wondering if astroturfing happens often, there are some more situations that can be considered astroturfing:

  • A public relations professional whose client is a development company attending a city council meeting to demonstrate support for that development company’s project without disclosing the relationship.
  • An influential blogger posting a positive review of a company without revealing to readers that she or he received a $1,000 gift card.
  • A company opposing new legislation sending letters voicing opposition to government representatives on behalf of people who did not write them.

As you can imagine, these situations are happening more than we probably know and can include different groups of people. However, it’s up to us to advocate honesty and ethics, which is what PRSA clearly lays out in the Code of Ethics. It’s also important to remember that even though PRSSA members are mostly interns, we are all responsible for our actions and can avoid these unethical practices for ourselves and those we represent.

All in all, astroturfing is not an acceptable practice in public relations. In the next post, Vice President of Advocacy Janelle Huelsman will discuss tactics and strategies, especially for interns, for avoiding unethical situations in the workplace. For now, what do you think about this situation? Do you have other examples of unethical behavior in the workplace to contribute?

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