When ‘on the ground’ public affairs work crosses a line | PR

When it comes to the work of public affairs firms with politicians, using opposition research to discredit rivals or weaken their position on an issue is normal. Usually this involves returning unearthed revelations to a reporter, whose subsequent coverage may change the narrative.

Companies on both sides of the aisle are also rolling out opposition research for private sector clients.

Think of a retailer attempting to block a competitor’s property development in a key market by exposing its poor labor practices.

Or private entities could commission opposition research to better respond to groups that attack your interests, as the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States, hoped to do by championing the integration of critical race theory in school curricula.

However, in their attempt to undermine a client’s competitors, some companies have flirted with the dark side – or rather, the “dark arts” of PR strategy, such as astroturfing. The term is used to describe popular fake moves. This can be a petition whose signatories are hidden because they are fraudulent, or blog and social media posts written by communications staff disguised as concerned ordinary citizens.

In a hyper-controlled and fact-checked media environment, dark arts public relations can be a dangerous discipline for a company’s reputation. This is evident after two stores, Targeted Victory and Global Strategy Group, received negative media coverage. Hired by Meta to make the case to the public and lawmakers that TikTok is a “threat” to young people, not Facebook, the Washington Post reported that Targeted Victory planted editorials and letters to the editor in major newspapers and local newspapers.

It also worked in October to spread rumors of a “Slap A Teacher TikTok challenge,” even though no such challenge was ever found in searches for the fast-growing app. Although only a rumour, the danger of the challenge has been covered by regional and mainstream media. It seems the rumor actually started on Facebook.

A Targeted Victory director also asked for ideas about local political reporters who could serve as a “secondary channel” for anti-TikTok messaging, according to an internal email seen by the Washington Post reporter. The director said the company “certainly would like it to be hands-off.”

Agency pros say it’s perfectly fine to use opposition research against a competitor if the information is credible and from a transparent source and seed. But some say Targeted Victory has crossed a line.

“They could have made their case with a few legitimate TikTok challenges that hurt a few people,” says Justine Griffin, director of Rasky Partners. “But it was clear that Facebook was looking to pique media interest with the most salacious stories and gossip possible, even if their credibility was questionable.”

It wasn’t the first time that Facebook had been the subject of unflattering coverage of the job it had hired a public relations firm to do. In 2011, Burson-Marsteller planted anti-Google stories about user privacy in mainstream media, while refusing to disclose Facebook as the source of those stories.

It seems bold of Facebook to continue hiring companies to execute questionable smear tactics, given how common media leaks have become for the social media juggernaut. Others simply call it arrogance, indicative of the mindset of leadership in the fiercely competitive tech industry.

“There is this really macho and arrogant attitude towards some of these tech leaders. They see themselves as disruptors, and so it’s like they’d rather hit a competitor on an issue than start a dialogue,” Griffin says. “With Facebook, the arrogance is also reflected in the fact that they obviously don’t think they’ll get caught by these tactics.”

Or, if they do, it’s worth it, if they manage to sow rumors and divert public concern away from Facebook.

“You feel like if Mark Zuckerberg did a risk-reward analysis, he would consider the risk of being called out worth it, if it means a chance to take TikTok down,” Griffin says.

PRWeek reached out to Targeted Victory and asked if they were exploiting “unfounded anxieties” in people to stir up anti-TikTok sentiment.

The company directed PRWeek to a series of tweets from its CEO Zak Moffatt. In one, he calls the story “fabricated”. In another, Moffatt claims the reporter “not only misrepresents the work we do, but the key points are just plain wrong. We tried to contact the Washington Post to talk more about it, but never received a response.

The reporter disputed that she had, in fact, responded.

Targeted Victory also provided PRWeek with a statement from Moffatt.

“Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients. It is common knowledge that we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done,” it reads.

Without specifically talking about Facebook, David Vermillion, senior strategist and MD at Firehouse Strategies, says clients and businesses need to resist letting their ambition get the better of them in opposition work.

“When you’re working on these big, high-profile issues for some of the biggest companies in the world, there’s a temptation to adopt that win-at-all-costs mentality. And when it comes to public affairs, you have a lot of seasoned pros who come from the bare-knuckle campaign,” says Vermillion.

“The win-at-all-costs mentality can dominate how you approach the goal, but you need to temper that temptation by ensuring you protect the client’s reputation first and foremost, and using honest and transparent tactics. to communicate,” he said. .

“The right way to do a grassroots campaign is to think of it as a sophisticated word-of-mouth campaign that you tie the seed to. That means understanding the target audience – what their values ​​are and what drives them – and finding that network. of individuals around him and educating him,” adds Vermillion. “The hope is that they will understand the value of the information, take it to their own constituents and network, and have those conversations.”

Griffin suggests a simple rule to control tactics. “Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if our plan and the work we’re doing landed on the front page of the newspaper?'”

If this makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s probably because your plan is using potentially deceptive and inauthentic tactics.

Global Strategy Group, meanwhile, faced backlash from its clients after CNBC reported that Amazon hired it to create materials to prevent workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island. to vote to unionize.

In this case, it was not the opposition’s tactics that rubbed people the wrong way. It was that GSG, a polling partner for a pro-Biden super PAC ahead of the 2020 election, would work on an anti-union campaign at all. The company has a long history with clients like Services Employees International Union, one of the largest unions in the United States. In response, SEIU, which had recently worked with GSG last year, severed its ties with the company.

To some, it sounded like an agency working with clients fighting for climate change legislation, but then backtracking and quietly working with a fossil fuel producer to cast doubt on climate change.

The company initially defended the work, before posting an apology on its website. “While there have been factual inaccuracies in recent reports about our work for Amazon, being involved in any way was wrong,” it read. “We are deeply sorry.”

He goes on to say, “As we move forward, we are committed to supporting the rights of workers to organize. A coalition of unions helped set new standards that prohibit companies, like ours, that work for Democratic Party candidates and organizations, from doing work that opposes workers’ efforts to organize.

“It also includes working on campaigns or in coalitions that seek to categorize workers in ways that make it harder for them to organize or qualify for benefits. We fully agree with these new standards and will incorporate them into our contracts with our customers. »

The pros note that it was the company that took the reputational hit, not Amazon whose stance against unions comes as no surprise.

GSG, which was acquired earlier this month by Milan-based SEC Newgate Group, had revenue of $54 million in 2021.

The lesson learned? A public affairs firm should always consider the perspective of all of its stakeholders when undertaking complex and highly sensitive work, says Dan Meyers, deputy general manager of APCO in Washington, D.C., office,

“The strategy and tactics deployed by any consulting firm must align with both their own values ​​and those of the client,” he says. “When you accept a complicated or large-scale assignment, it is important to assess the impact for stakeholders, clients and employees of the consulting firm as well as those of the client.”

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