A recent BuzzFeed article explains how the Taiwanese “PR firm” Bravo-Idea gathers online information and distributes machine-generated content through fake websites and massive numbers of fake social media accounts.
“I developed this for manipulating public opinion,” entrepreneur Peng Kuan Chin told the Reporter, an investigative news site in Taipei, which partnered with BuzzFeed News for the article.
The misinformation and social media tactics mirror those of the state interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A Worldwide Trend of Black PR Fakery
The operation reflects an emerging worldwide trend of PR and marketing firms using fake accounts, fake news and fake websites to promote agendas of clients including political parties, candidates or brands. Since 2011, at least 27 online misinformation operations have been partially or wholly attributed to PR or marketing firms. Of those, 19 occurred in 2019 alone.
BuzzFeed calls the practice “black PR,” a term it apparently coined. Real PR professionals may take issue with the phrase and argue Peng and similar players are really troll farms or fake news factories, not PR agencies.
In the past, others have equated Black PR with smearing competitors with false accusations to destroy their reputations. That practice is also called dark PR or negative public relations. Incidentally, Black PR is also an African-American newswire service.
While Peng’s operation is huge, it’s not the only one or the first. BuzzFeed cited similar outfits based in Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Dark PR Doings in South Africa
British PR firm Bell Pottinger shown the spotlight on PR ethics when news emerged of its secret divisive campaign in South Africa in 2018. Its campaign on behalf a wealthy Indian family with large corporate holdings inflamed racial animosity with hate-filled website content, speeches, news releases, fake Twitter bots and other tactics.
The New York Times called Bell Pottinger the “PR firm for Despots and Rogues,” noting that it had also run campaigns for dictators such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, repressive regimes in Bahrain and Egypt, and celebrities accused of serious crimes like Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius.
Bell Pottinger soon collapsed following the scandal, and the Public Relations and Communications Association in Britain ejected the company from its membership.
“What Bell Pottinger did for revenue is not ‘our PR,’ which we practice and advocate for every day,” stated Anthony D’Angelo, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in a letter to the editor to the Times. “We won’t lie about our clients, or anyone else, including those who may oppose what our clients advocate.”
Pronounces PR Principals
Following the scandal, the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, an umbrella organization of PR trade groups around the world, issued the Helsinki Declaration, a list of ethical PR and social media marketing practices to follow. Some of the principals call for PR professionals to “be aware of the power of social media, and use it responsibly” and to “never engage in the creation of or knowingly circulate fake news.”
With the more recent emergence of “black PR” tactics, especially in social media, legitimate PR agencies and PR trade associations may need to bolster efforts to distinguish ethical PR practices from the likes of Bell Pottinger and Bravo-Idea.
Bottom Line: PR agencies that use unsavory practices, including disinformation, social media bots, and fake websites, endanger the reputation of genuine PR agencies and the public relations profession. It’s critical that the PR industry aggressively promote ethical standards defend itself and isolate the bad actors.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.