August 27, 2010
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has settled a complaint it made against a PR firm for having its employees pose as ordinary customers and post glowing reviews of new video games on Apple’s iTunes store. As Reuters reports, the firm, Reverb Communications, based in Twain Harte, Calif., has worked with several video game developers and received a percentage of sales.
The practice of disguising online PR or advertising campaigns as grassroots support for a product is known as “astroturfing.” While it’s been common online for years, the practice can be a violation of the FTC Act, which considers it a deceptive practice for people with material connections to products or services to promote them without disclosing their interests.
Under the PRSA Code of Ethics, the source of editorial material must be clearly identified. Any attempts to mislead or deceive an uninformed audience are considered malpractice. The PRSA code calls for truth and transparency and full disclosure of the causes and interests represented. The goal should be responsible advocacy on behalf of clients, sustaining credibility with all audiences and strengthening the public’s trust in the information they receive and the profession that provides that information. Deceptive practices produce unethical advocacy. The code also specifically targets deceptive online practices by individuals or organizations using blogs, viral marketing and anonymous Internet posting in Professional Standards Advisory PS-8 (PDF).
The FTC complaint did not identify the video games Reverb employees reviewed on iTunes, but said the employees posted comments such as “amazing new game,” “one of the best” and “another home run.”
Reverb owner Tracie Snitker reportedly called the FTC complaint a frivolous matter. In an e-mail she quoted the agency’s statement that “The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondents of a law violation.”
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, tells The New York Times that the FTC’s first enforcement action under the guidelines should be seen as good news by those who were concerned.
“This case sort of shows that what they have in mind is not the individual blogger or Twitterer, but rather a professional endorser,” Zittrain says.
He says the action could be useful to PR firms that want to resist requests from clients that they “play dirty.”
For further reading: The New FTC Guidelines: Cutting through the Clutter (PRSAY)