Above the FUD: Keeping PR Clean when the Tactics Get Dirty

If you travel in tech circles, you may know what FUD is – no, not the slushy gunk that gets stuck under your No_FUD car grill in the winter, rather it stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Wikipedia defines FUD as "an attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative and dubious/false information designed to undermine credibility." The label has its roots in the tech industry.

If you have been in tech PR for awhile, chances are that at one time or another a client has tried to involve you in their FUD wars, or asked you to do something that just doesn't sit right. Perhaps they wanted the PR team to plant negative or false stories (a client once asked me to sniff around a competitor's booth at a trade show to collect intelligence, and to lie about it if asked). Closely related, is when the client asks for overly aggressive media tactics, things that you know will be counterproductive.

These situations pose all kinds of questions and ethical dilemmas. After all, isn't your obligation to the client? Aren't we advocates that, just like lawyers, take the guilty and not so nice clients, and do our level best to defend them and advance their interests? On the other hand, do we want to be dragged down into the dirt – and doesn't the dirt tarnish our own reputations?

Now that the PR field has had a chance to think about and get past the Facebook PR fiasco of months ago (in which the company hired a PR firm to spread negative info about Google, see the Ragan's PR daily article on this), I thought it might be a good time to look at ways of doing a great job and doing right by clients without getting tarnished, by offering these tips on how to keep your heads high and stay above the FUD amidst vendor wars and the dirty pool that is sometimes involved.

Keep Cool and Keep Your Perspective

Always remember that clients' battles are not ours. Agencies are independent; after all, the client hired us because we are experts and because of our media relationships.  Although it is great to be counted on as a close and trusted advisor, remember, too, that we are supposed to be objective counselors who stay above the fray of internal politics and external score settling.

Let the Client Know that FUD is Just not Good Business and Not Good PR

I have found that FUD becomes more of a problem when PR is overly influenced by sales, an area that encourages aggression and hardball tactics (I was in sales before PR, so I know what I am talking about).

You may need to remind an overeager client about the following facts:

  1. Reporters do not enjoy being used to as pawns to advance vendor's interests; the FUD campaign could jeopardize the collective efforts to build positive equity with the media and thus not best serve the long term goals of the PR program. 
  2. As we saw with Facebook, there is a good chance that the tactics will be outed and the campaign will blow up in their faces

Turn to Management for Cover

At the first signs that the client will expect something that does not pass the "sniff test," you should not hesitate to involve agency management. They can help you make the above arguments, and also let the client know that there are industry guidelines against unethical practices.

Does all this mean there is not room for a little hardball in PR? Isn't it a little naive to think that we can remain totally above the fray of our client's marketing wars? This is not just a question about ethics. E.g. the lapse of the PR team in the above-mentioned scandal (at least, according to PR industry ethical guidelines) was to hide their client's name, which can lead one to assume that it might be "okay" to sling mud if you do share the client's name.

It is not a black or white issue, there is no single right answer; it gets back to the style of PR that you want to practice, and what you and your agency brand stand for. Agencies need to make clear to employees what is acceptable (and what is not); and you as an employee or job seeker need to make sure that this sits right with you.

(By the way, the subject of PR and ethics is a hot topic right now, and I would be remiss if I did not point people to Heather Yaxley's excellent and very detailed post this week on PR Conversations: PR is what PR Does – A Question of Ethics).

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2 Responses to Above the FUD: Keeping PR Clean when the Tactics Get Dirty

  1. Krista says:

    This is a good aspect of PR to bring up. There is a lot of discussion about what is and isn’t ethical in PR now (ie. the Edelman/Murdoch connection; the Facebook smear campaign you mentioned). While there are no real answers per se, as it varies on perspective, it’s still an important topic to continue among PR professionals.

  2. Thanks for the link. Your post made me wonder whether your agency has its own ethical guidelines against unethical practices? These may be viewed negatively by some clients, but I would hope that in setting out your own principles in a “roles and responsbilities” document post-pitch (if not before), this would be welcomed as a sign of professionalism by most.

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