Fleishman astroturfing: Industry bodies reiterate stance, but won't act without formal complaint

PR industry bodies have reiterated their stance that astroturfing is a breach of professional ethics, but will not take action against FleishmanHillard Fishburn until a formal complaint has been received about the tactics the agency used with arena operator SMG Europe, owners of Manchester Arena.

The leaflet, produced by FleishmanHillard Fishburn, received a backlash from Manchester City Council.
The leaflet, produced by FleishmanHillard Fishburn, received a backlash from Manchester City Council.

Fleishman is a member of the PRCA and CIPR and comes under both bodies ethical codes and professional standards.

Fleishman and SMG created and distributed a leaflet opposing a rival arena that a Manchester City Council leader slammed as "misleading" and "outrageous". The leaflet purported to come from a fake community group called Friends of Eastlands, which is a tactic known in the industry as ‘astroturfing’.

The aim of the leaflet was to rally public opposition to plans for a rival concert hall next the Etihad Stadium, although the document made assertions that the council has rebuked, including the council’s funding of such a project.

In response to the allegations against Fleishman, PRCA director general Francis Ingham told PRWeek: "The PRCA and its board has a very clear stance on astroturfing. 

"I can confirm that no complaint has been made against FHF, and that if a complaint were to be received, we would deal with it via the usual well-established channels."

This position is consistent with previous cases. The PRCA only acted on Bell Pottinger after a formal complaint was made by the Democratic Alliance, the South African opposition party at the time.

The CIPR said it also had no plans to investigate the claims unless a formal complaint is lodged.

In response to the allegations, CIPR president Emma Leech said: "Manufacturing the perception of grassroots support is unethical, as any professional should know. Dealing openly and honestly with the public is a basic expectation of professional conduct and any CIPR member engaging in astroturfing may face disciplinary action."

Fleishman’s case more surprising

The Fleishman/SMG Europe case of astroturfing follows recent revelations by the Guardian over similar tactics used by Lynton Crosby’s firm, CTF Partners, and another case involving  the operator of the O2 Arena and an agency called Sans Frontières Associates, which made up a fake grassroots movement called the Newham Action Group to oppose a rival entertainment venue in East London.

In their response to the CTF Partners case, the CIPR and PRCA were quick to distance themselves from the consultancy and condemn its practices. CTF Partners is not a member of either body.

FleishmanHillard’s case is more susrprising than the other two because of the size and reputation of the agency involved.

Fleishman was ranked 11th in this year’s PRWeek Top 150 UK Consultancies with estimated revenue of £34 million and 290 staff. Last year, the agency was named Large Consultancy of the Year in the PRWeek UK Awards. FleishmanHillard UK and Middle East CEO Jim Donaldson is the chair of the PRCA’s board of management.
Fleishman declined to comment about the allegations but noted that SMG Europe works with several agencies and advisers. SMG Europe defended the leaflet and campaign and claims it was fully transparent.

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