Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Counterfeiting Online

You may have noticed the anti-astroturfing symbol on the right hand side of this blog. If you've never heard of astroturfing or want to know why anyone would be opposed to it, head over to the New PR Wiki for the latest on this campaign and for recent case studies.

Essentially, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign manufactured to give the impression of a legitimate public movement. There have been far too many cases of this practice, called anything from sock puppeteering to ghost blogging, and this week saw yet another jaw dropping example.

Students at Hunter College in New York were made to believe an undergraduate student, Heidi Cee, had lost her coach bag and was offering a reward for its return. Students “couldn't miss the poster plastered around the Upper East Side campus. Reading ‘MISSING -- $500 reward!!’ it was accompanied by a photo of a young, blonde, Heidi Cee, pleading for the return of her lost Coach bag,” according to AdWeek's Andrew Newman who broke the story yesterday. Heidi, apparently a social networking enthusiast, followed up her reward posters with Youtube videos, Facebook/Myspace profiles, and, of course, a blog.

I seriously could not care less about Coach bags and counterfeit purses so I won’t get into the mindless details of this fake campaign but…you guessed it; Heidi does not exist. And, worse the campaign was created by PR students in a class funded by a $10,000 grant from, who else, Coach.

If you really want to see how far down the rabbit hole this one goes, head over to AdWeek for the full seven page article, True Story of a Bogus Blog. After reading the piece I was reminded of why I support the AntiAstrotufing campaign.

I managed to catch up with the campaign’s founder, Paull Young, via email last night to discuss this most recent example. Paull and I agree on the need for a solid ethics curriculum for PR students in an effort to stop futures astroturfing instances.

“Many who fall into the Astroturfing trap do not realize that what they are doing is ethically dubious…This points to a need for greater education and discussion of ethics, transparency, trust and honesty.” Paull said. "PR students should be well versed in the difficult grey areas PR's can venture into with edgy creative campaigns, and the lecturers and professionals guiding them should be putting greater emphasis on the ethical decision making of their young charges."

Well said, Youngie. Hunter college needs more honest communications professors and less corporate-sponsored lessons in quesitonable tactics.

For a refresher on ethics check out Kami Huyse’s Anti-Astroturfing code of ethics, as well as WOMMA’s Honesty ROI.

As Paull pointed out in our discussion, the Coach campaign failed the Honesty ROI on all three cylinders:

"Honesty of Relationship: Say who you are speaking for (this was hidden)
Honesty of Opinion: Say what you believe (this may or may not have been the case, but failure to disclose motivation and identity make it a moot point)
Honesty of Identity: You never obscure your identity (another black mark)”

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