PR Week – When Grass Roots Public Affairs Crosses a Line

Two highly publicized incidents have come to light of firms flirting too closely with the ‘dark arts’ side of the business.

April 21, 2022

by Chris Daniels

When it comes to public affairs firms’ work with politicians, the use of opposition research to discredit rivals or weaken their position on an issue is par for the course. Usually, it involves flipping dug-up revelations to a reporter, whose subsequent coverage can change the narrative.

Firms on both sides of the aisle also deploy opposition research for private sector clients.

Think of a retailer attempting to block a competitor’s real estate development in a key market by bringing to the fore their poor labor practices.

Or private entities might commission opposition research to better respond to groups who attack your interests, as the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, hoped to do in defending the integration of critical race theory in school curriculum.

However, in their attempt to undermine competitors for a client, some firms have flirted with the dark side — or rather, the “dark arts” of PR strategy, such as astroturfing. The term is used to describe fake grassroots movements. It could be a petition whose signatories are concealed because they’re fraudulent or blog and social media posts written by comms staffers disguised as concerned everyday citizens.

In a hyper-scrutinized, fact-checked media environment, dark arts PR can be a dangerous discipline for a firm’s reputation. This is evident after two shops, Targeted Victory and Global Strategy Group, found themselves the subject of negative press 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 op-eds and letters to the editor in major and local newspapers.

It also worked in October to spread rumors of a “Slap A Teacher TikTok challenge,” even though no such challenge ever turned up in searches on the fast-growing app. Despite just being a rumor, the danger of the challenge was covered by both regional and mainstream media. It appears the rumor was, in fact, started on Facebook.

A Targeted Victory director also asked for ideas on local political reporters who could serve as a “back channel” for anti-TikTok messages, according to an internal email viewed by The Washington Post reporter. The director said the firm “would definitely want it to be hands off.”

Agency pros say it is all above board to use opposition research against a competitor if the information is credible and transparently sourced and seeded. But some argue Targeted Victory crossed a line.

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

This wasn’t the first time Facebook has found itself the subject of unflattering coverage about the work it has hired a PR 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 daring of Facebook to keep hiring firms to execute dubious smear tactics, given how common media leaks have become for the social media juggernaut. Others just call it arrogance, indicative of the leadership mindset in the fiercely competitive tech sector.

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

Or, if they do, it is worth it, if they successfully seed rumors and divert public worry from Facebook.

“You get the sense that if Mark Zuckerberg did a risk-reward analysis, he would consider the risk of getting called out worth it, if it means a chance of taking down TikTok,” says Griffin.

To read the full article on PR Week’s website, click here.