Definition of astroturfing:
Astroturfing refers to marketing / public relations campaigns which attempt to create the impression of being spontaneous and true, genuine (and representations of *real* people and their opinions) when, in fact, they are not. In all of the standards of practice listed below, this practice is considered to be unethical.
stroturfing is an interesting topic. I see PR practitioners that defend it as a valuable tool. Others decry it as unethical and bad practice. I’ll place myself in the latter group.
FlackLife blogger, Bob LeDrew, has the story in two posts so far. They are “Now we flacks get students to astroturf for us” and an interview with Hunter College faculty member and “PR expert Stuart Ewen on (the) ‘Heidi Cee’” astroturf blogging, social networks and YouTube video fiasco.
- a university president involving herself in the setting of curriculum
- a department chair conceding to the wishes of the president and creating a course solely for the creation of the astroturf campaign
- an instructor arguing that the course was unethical, yet felt pressure due to lack of tenure and taught it anyway
- the instructor had no prior background in public relations or marketing
- a college forcing this deceptive practice (and involvement in it) upon students in a class
- a corporate donor to Hunter College (CUNY) asking for the course and the Hunter president forcing the course and astroturfing on the department
- “the Coach Corporation, manufacturer of shoes, handbags, and accessories, put up ten thousand dollars to fund the course“
- Update: RDWaters reminds me that “Ohio State University, Howard University, and University of Miami are among the schools that have hosted IACC campaigns similar to Hunter’s.” (Source: Ben Kessler blog and IACC College Outreach Program)
- believe me, these are only the
highlightslowlights … there is much, much more …
I simply cannot imagine a more definitive example of bad practice than this case. The interference by the president, the campaign tied to a donation to the college, the creation of a course solely to accomplish the deceit, the students (it seems) happily joining in, the faculty and department chair encouraging them along … it just boggles the mind. How stupid can these people be?
Read the links, watch the video. Fake vs. Fakes | Center for Media and Democracy. What do you think of all this? I’ve already seen two PR practitioners in a listserv group defend the practice. Oh, brother.
- FlackLife: UPDATED: Now we flacks get students to astroturf for us.
- Ben Kessler: Heidi Cee in Plain Sight at Graphic Design Forum Blogs
- Fake vs. Fakes | Center for Media and Democracy
- Hunter_Report.pdf (application/pdf Object) – this is likely the most disturbing of all
Update: Ya’ gotta read this great post by Clemson’s Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu. In particular, see the class blog she came across for the course. Yikes!
If you are interested, here is what I wrote in reply to the listserv group where the practice of astroturfing was being defended by a few PR practitioners.
The space known as social media is not the same as advertising.
The space has been claimed, for lack of a better term, by those that inhabit the space. The audience sets the rules and associations representing practitioners have recognized that reality by creating standards of practice guidelines.
In the Coach example, their target audience is young people. This further illustrates the irony and foolishness of the Coach astroturfing campaign. Younger audiences have an increasing disdain for advertising. Advertising, to younger audiences, is increasingly being perceived as fake and insincere.
Forget, for a moment, the social media kookaid drinkers and their “people formerly known as the audience” mentality. At its very core, the Coach example is bad practice.
Practitioners have seen fit to create guidelines that recognize these perceived lines in the sand created by the audiences inhabiting the space of social media.
The standard of good practice within the social media space says that it is the responsibility of communicators to (a) understand the space they are communicating in and (b) to be as completely transparent as they can be. This is why associations representing practitioners have seen fit to create standards of practice that call for that transparency.
Examples of those standards:
PRSA, IABC and IOAC have also established standards of practice.
In each, transparency is the common theme. The rules for advertising do not apply to social media. They are not the same thing. I realize that this concept is novel to many, but it is the reality in the social media space.
There is certainly “a disconnect in using an elaborately created fake person(s) to say that fake stuff is bad.”