Jack Irvine: 'Astroturfing is widespread in PR and tactic also used by larger agencies'

Astroturfing in PR is "more widespread than you'd imagine" and is not just a practice used by smaller consultancies on the fringes.

Media House International chair Jack Irvine says astroturfing has been going on for years. Photo: DAVID TETT.
Media House International chair Jack Irvine says astroturfing has been going on for years. Photo: DAVID TETT.

That’s the view of industry veteran Jack Irvine, executive chairman of Media House International, a full-service PR consultancy that specialises in crisis management and public affairs.

Irvine was speaking in the wake of the Guardian’s expose of Lynton Crosby’s firm CTF Partners, which ran online disinformation campaigns that selectively promoted CTF clients’ viewpoints on anonymous Facebook pages that could not be linked back to the consultancy or its clients.

CTF is the second case of astroturfing that has been exposed in the UK in the past month. Sans Frontières Associates, working on behalf of O2 Arena parent company AEG Europe, recently created a fake community organisation, Newham Action Group (NAG), to build "fake" grassroots opposition to a proposed music and entertainment venue called the MSG Sphere.

The most famous case of astroturfing in recent years was Bell Pottinger’s work with Oakbay Investments – a scandal that engendered a lot of industry soul-searching and pledges to eradicate the practice.

Both PR trade associations, the PRCA and CIPR, strongly condemned the practice of astroturfing that had been reported in the CTF Partners case, and are adamant it rarely occurs.

‘Another tool in the PR box’

Irvine told PRWeek that he wasn’t surprised by the findings and said "there’s a lot of dirty work going on in the PR world". He said that astroturfing is not limited to smaller consultancies who might operate outside of the watchful eye of trade bodies.

"I don’t want to sound cynical in this, but it’s another tool in the PR box that is widely used," Irvine said, adding that Media House International would never use the tactic. 

"It’s been going on for a hell of a long time; this technique is not news to me at all...and if you had time to investigate it, you’d find it’s much more widespread than you imagine.

"I would say it’s the very big agencies that have been using it. You need a lot of manpower, a lot of clout to do it. Especially in the tobacco and oil industry it’s the big agencies."

Irvine pointed out that it’s a common tactic used by Big Oil and Big Tobacco, and is a global issue, with recent examples of Philip Morris using astroturfing tactics in Australia in the fight against plain packaging and to legalise e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

"There were several websites purporting to be interested parties, but pushing Big Tobacco’s agenda," Irvine said. "It’s worked all over the world. Big oil companies use it when they are having problems with conservation and pollution issues."

Irvine said Media House International, which is a member of the PRCA and falls under Public Affairs Board ethical codes, has been approached to carry out a kind of astroturfing work, an offer that was turned down.

"I was approached by a journalist last year and was asked if I could place pro-stories about certain Arab countries. He said there was an American PR firm willing to pay £5,000 a time to get positive stories. I said, ‘that is absolutely outrageous, not just for a PR company to do it, but a journalist’.

"These things are going on all the time in the industry. I think after the Guardian story, some people might be running for cover."

Astroturfing weapon of choice: Social media

A common thread with the CTF Partners case and others is the use of social media platforms to amplify and spread campaigns to target audiences.

Irvine said social media sites are being "used and abused to peddle fake news".

"Social media is totally out of control," Irvine said. "I’m in Dubai and watching [coverage] of the shootings going on in the US. One is very aware of all of the anti-immigration rhetoric and pro-white supremacy rhetoric on social media.

"Social media has provided this weapon and there are a lot of companies not afraid to use it."

Irvine believes social media platforms should be held responsible for spreading misinformation and "vile propaganda".

"Yes, they have a responsibility to better monitor their platforms. What would happen if The Times produced vile propaganda and made it up? They would be hammered and could be done for libel and come up before various regulators."

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