Companies and political leaders are being urged to hire a PR agency specialising in 'news manipulation' and 'message confusion'.
In what is believed to be an elaborate hoax, Covert PR claims to employ an army of bogus bloggers and tweeters to distort the news agenda on behalf of clients paying more than £10,000 per month.
Its website states: ‘We offer Covert PR services on an international basis for clients that wish to influence opinion in an advantageous direction in a private and concealed manner. We are highly confidential and never share any details about any of our clients, who they are or the work we have entered into on their behalf… We have clients who are private individuals, celebrities, companies and organisations but also nations and their leaders.’
The site appeals for potential clients to get in touch. It promises: ‘We can ensure that the debate is influenced by our large number of "posters" who post comments on mainstream media websites, write letters, take part in phone-ins and therefore help sway and nudge the debate in a direction that favours your organisation.’
The website - covertpr.wordpress.com - provides an email address for potential clients, but does not give out a phone number or postal address. There are no records of a firm named Covert PR at Companies House.
PRWeek was alerted to the operation by an email from an individual who claimed to have worked for Covert PR.
The email claimed: ‘The first job was I had to create a few hundred email addresses, then Facebooks to match, make friends with each other but mainly with real people etc. I had to write up a profile on each of the characters I created and also a log of passwords, logins for different sites, forums, chat rooms etc…
'The week after, I was introduced to Google alerts to check out any stories on our clients so we could then make comments to sway opinion to our clients favour.’
The email stated that some employees of covert PR worked exclusively on the Libyan war with the aim of ‘casting doubt on any anti-Gaddafi stories’.
It concluded: ‘I am guessing this is all normal for a PR company really, but it didn’t seem 100 per cent right.’
However, the email's author declined to meet with PRWeek to further discuss the issue and also failed to provide a phone number or address for Covert PR. PRWeek also emailed Covert PR on the address provided on the website but did not get a response.
Portland head of digital Mark Flanagan said the operation looked like a hoax.
‘From the tone and style of the site, the person or persons behind it have only a superficial understanding of PR. The website is basically an off-the-shelf blog so has cost nothing at all to set up - it goes to show you don't need flashy offices or even a decent website to punt yourself as a PR professional these days.’
He added: ‘I doubt if anyone serious would be taken in by someone making extravagant claims without credentials and on the basis of cash only. Most organisations or individuals seeking PR services of this kind would seek out bona fide advisers based on recommendation and reputation.’
Flanagan was also critical of the covert tactics outlined on the website.
He said: ‘In today’s world, your online reputation is your reputation so it needs to be managed. It’s entirely legitimate, indeed recommended, for brands and their agencies to monitor, participate in and help shape conversations going on around the web.
'However, this should be done openly, as covert methods are not just unethical but tend to backfire.’
Sent: 06 July 2011 18:20
To: prweek newsdesk
Subject: covert pr
Dear PR Week,
I wanted to write to you as I had an experience working for what is called covert pr, but they don't really have a trading name although they seem to do lots of pr work.
I was looking for a job and saw an ad for writers, and so being interested I made contact and asked for the details. I didn't really expect anything back, but then I got an e mail giving me an outline of the kind of stuff that would be involved. It said the position was highly confidential and required 100% discretion, but allowed a degree of flexibility working to create effective grass roots pr for a variety of clients.
I had an interview where we discussed a variety of things - my experience, even broad politics, beliefs etc etc.
Anyway I got the job. The job was 100% writing, but was told it could involve also phone calls to radio and tv etc.
Basically the money was good so i took it. When i joined i was given training in lots of areas and guidance about what to write and where etc. The first job was i had to create a few hundred e mail addresses, then facebooks to match, make friends with each other but mainly with real people etc. I had to write up a profile on each of the characters I created and also a log of passwords, logins for different sites, forums, chat rooms etc.
The week after I was introduced to google alerts to check out any stories on our clients so we could then make comments to sway opinion to our clients favour. once again hundreds of logins and characters were used so we could post on hundreds of sites in different names etc. but not just comments, many blogs were run by the agency that were supporting and not supporting all and every cause you could imagine. the philiosphy of the agency is that it nudges opinion through what it does and it does covert pr, its sometimes called covert pr too. it believes that it can influence covertly more than a traditional pr company. but they dont have a website, dont advertise etc they approach embassies and individuals for business.
I didn't get to see or find out about specific clients, but for example some people worked exclusively on the Libyan war and gaddafi, the main aim seemed to be to try and nudge and sway public opinion from the bombing that is there. once again comments on all the biggest news sites in the world, blogs written in london that are meant to be written in libya by gaddafi loyalists and libyan rebels, fake videos of rebels killing prisoners etc were all seen or talked about and all done from outside libya, in london area. but there was even work on tarnishing the names of pro intervention jouralists and bloggers etc. basically most of what i saw was trying to blur and muddy the waters of who was good and who was bad in libya, while casting doubt on the effectiveness of the bombing and whilst confusing and muddying and casting doubt on any anti gaddafi stories. while making the rebels look bad etc.
Other writers (like me) were working on syria, Darfur, Burma and other countries in the middle east. I heard some talk of north korea who a writer did work for and also other clients such as russian oligarch types and mexican crime leaders and other such clients. i guess at the clients by the subject matter, names etc.
I dont want to be involved in this any further but i found your website and it seems to be the kind of thing you could be interested in.
I am guessing this is all normal for a pr company really, but it didnt seem 100% right so I thought I would write to your newsdesk and let you look into it.
Subject: RE: covert pr
Date: Thu, 7 Jul 2011 14:09:59 +0100
Thanks for your email. Do you fancy meeting up for a coffee? I never reveal sources and can guarantee any story would not be traced back to you.
Failing that do you have a link to the job and a phone number for this company? It would also be useful to know their address and the names of any individuals in charge.
I’d be keen to look in to this but it’s not really possible without any of those details
It would be good to hear from you.
174 Hammersmith Road
London W6 7JP
Tel: 020 8267 4428
Sent: 20 July 2011 11:32
To: David Singleton
Subject: RE: covert pr
I suppose there is nothing illegal in what they are doing, so there isn't much point I think.
I was talking to someone I got to know there and he said they have a blog on what they do... covertpr.wordpress.com as they want to find a way of finding new clients without going into having adverts and a full website etc.
They have an e mail address firstname.lastname@example.org or co.uk, I am not sure which.
From: David Singleton
Sent: 19 August 2011 10:51
Subject: RE: covert pr
Can you give me the address for this company? Or is the whole thing a hoax??