Friend or Foe? Online Reputation Management Firms

As many people know, I’m a vocal advocate for the value of PR. Hell, I wouldn’t be doing my job at PRSA if that weren’t the case, and it’s something I sincerely believe in. Yet from time to time, like most folks, I get down about certain aspects of the business. This is the story of one of those moments.

And it has to do with the growing use of online reputation management firms and the increasing prevalence of spurious tactics some of these firms are using. I point to two recent articles in The Times of London (sub req’d) as exhibits A and B. But you don’t have to look far to find other examples.

Before I highlight those examples, allow me to make a couple of points clear:

  • Far be it from me to deny anyone their means of making a living. There are many reputable and ethical online reputation management firms, and certainly, this is a growing and prosperous sector of PR. In that regard, I’m hesitant to even say the following:
  • The online reputation management firms that engage in dubious and/or covert practices on behalf of clients are dragging down the PR industry. Furthermore, they are becoming the scourge of PR. As more media outlets begin to investigate their work, I hope that the firms that use unethical practices quickly get weeded out, and we are left with a more honest and ethical sector of the PR industry.

Having said that, let’s review some of the evidence.

Over a period of two days, The Times exposed two growing trends in online reputation management: erasing negative articles and comments about celebrity clients, and boosting online reviews for clients by leaving fake reviews, or flooding a site with dozens of fake posts.

To be sure, none of this is new; it’s been going on for several years. Only last year, the FTC settled a case against Reverb Communications following allegations that its employees were writing fake online reviews on iTunes for client products. That settlement represented one of the first cases brought against a firm under the FTC “blogger rules.”

Unfortunately, I imagine several more cases will come to light in years ahead.

And as ecommerce continues to grow, as does the market for any tidbit of celebrity or political gossip, so will the need for dubious online reputation management practices to try to hide certain improprieties.

Another growing practice that falls squarely in the unethical PR category is the use of Wikipedia “fixers” to clean up clients Wikipedia accounts. David Singleton of PRWeek had a big expose of this issue recently. Fortunately, the experts quoted there adroitly called out this tactic as being inappropriate. That’s in stark contrast to the apologists who were all too willing to gloss over the unethical practices of Burson-Marsteller when it was caught in a smear campaign on behalf of Facebook.

All of this accumulated evidence — and to be sure, it is growing — isn’t enough to make me a pessimist about PR’s value or role in modern business. I see too much of the excellent and ethical work of my industry colleagues each day to think that is the case.

But it does have me concerned that even if this is a growth area for PR, is it one we should be embracing? Or do we need to call for it to clean up its own act before it can even have any hope of cleaning up the reputation of clients? Let alone before it destroys that of PR.

What do you think? Am I off-base in claiming that online reputation management firms may be leading PR down a dubious path?