Walking the line between balance and 'sockpuppetry'

PR professionals face a fine ethical line when using the comments sections of blog posts or online news articles.

Walking the line between balance and 'sockpuppetry'

PR professionals face a fine ethical line when using the comments sections of blog posts or online news articles. It's a quandary that consultants and agencies are seeing more often as they try to satisfy frustrated clients when a comments section is overrun by inaccurate, misleading, or negative statements.

For instance, the University of Maryland's athletics department said last year that it would join the Big Ten Conference, ending a run of nearly six decades in the Atlantic Coast Conference. When the school faced a wave of negative fan reaction on blogs and websites, some of its staff posted anonymous comments under articles to explain its decision.

“One of the suggestions I made was to have members of their community with the correct info about the move go into areas where they would normally have conversations and make sure their side of the story was being told,” explains Lee Zeidman, founder and CEO of Zeidman Corporate Communications Consulting and a former broadcast journalist with 60 Minutes. “When stories are breaking fast, sometimes the best way to get info out there is through blogs.”

He says he did not recommend that the university have commenters masquerade as other people or as multiple users. That practice, often referred to as “sockpuppetry” because multiple users are actually from one source, is a more common tactic in the political world.

Zeidman says he does not usually recommend clients post messages in the comments section at all – anonymously or otherwise. The comments section tends to attract consumers that are not an accurate sample of a client's target audience, he explains.

Yet Zeidman adds that many clients want to feel like they are doing something to turn the tide.

“When faced with a client having a nervous breakdown, they are going to ask, ‘What are the things we can do?' So you lay it all down for them,” he says. “But if they ask me what I'd recommend, that is different. What frequently happens in a crisis is convincing people to plant their feet firmly on the ground and take the blast, because this too still shall pass.”

PRWeek contacted the marketing department at the University of Maryland, but it did not return messages by the time of publication.

Joseph Cohen, SVP at MWW and the incoming national chair-elect of the Public Relations Society of America, says comment sections are a growing concern for clients and their agency partners.

“They do matter because they can help to validate or discredit content within stories. There is the point of view of the journalist, the commentary in the piece, and then the public reaction to the article,” he explains. “When you look through the comments, it can provide a very telling tale of what public opinion may be on a certain matter.”

He adds that part of the PRSA's focus next year will be on providing ethical guidelines on social media, including on making comments.

“These are some of the new ethical challenges that communications pros have been facing as the media landscape evolves,” Cohen adds, adding that as a rule of thumb, PR pros should practice disclosure. “I think a part of it depends on what your role is in an organization. If part of your job is to publicly represent a company and you make a comment that implies you are not who you say you are, then that is an area of questionable ethics.” 

David Krejci, EVP of digital at Weber Shandwick, says his firm does not seed comments in a cloaked way. “Ethics is one of the reasons why, but also because such a strategy runs counter to what social media is all about – transparency,” he explains. 

For clients that want to have someone on their team respond but identify themselves, he only recommends that in very rare cases.

“That is really risky to do, because if you walk into a room where everyone feels negatively toward you or your company, you become their prey,” Krejci explains. “There are opportunities where you may want to step in, but they are few because the likelihood of turning over a hostile room is highly unlikely.”

But that does not mean there is nothing a client can do.

“If you get a boatload of negative commentary – and keep in mind people are much more inclined to be negative and unfair – you can still learn from those conversations,” he says.
“You can use that in your organization's communications to produce some content, on Facebook, Twitter, all your social media channels, that don't necessarily call out those articles but addresses the topics.”

As an example, he cites JPMorgan Chase, which this week cancelled a Twitter Q&A with vice chairman Jimmy Lee after the hashtag #ASKJPM was overtaken by critics of the bank.

“They can view this as an indicator of some people's perceptions of the company, many of whom are customers,” says Krejci. “Creating smart content that addresses those concerns in JPMorgan's owned channels can open the door to a more productive conversation as well as allow the company to express their views.”

Lois Boynton, associate professor of PR at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, warns that a lack of transparency can create a backlash worse than the offending comments.

“It can blow back on an organization because people tend to find those things out. You are really not anonymous. Somebody is going to figure you out,” she says. “It just adds another layer of problems, not only to an organization but to the PR profession in general. Because the profession doesn't have the best reputation, if you try to fudge something, it becomes professional suicide.”

However, Boynton says there is nothing wrong with PR pros commenting if they divulge their identity.

“If an organization feels like a story or views presented are not balanced, then say so. It is kind of advantageous that there is a comment section, because in the dark ages you would call the editor or reporter and express concern that they missed a point or got a fact wrong,” she says. “You did not have an ability to share it so broadly unless you went with a letter to the editor. Taking advantage of opportunities that the Internet provides is great, but you can't lose sight of the importance of transparency.”

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in