Gini Dietrich

Fake Reviews Fined; PR Firms Beware

By: Gini Dietrich | October 8, 2013 | 

Fake Reviews Fined; PR Firms BewareBy Gini Dietrich

I have a friend who leads a team of attorneys that are the lawyers for the PR field.

Michael Lasky and his team at Davis & Gilbert know anything and everything there is to know about the law and PR and they keep up on what’s happening in the social space, from a legal perspective.

Whenever there is an issue about doing business online (employees making racist remarks on their personal social networks, disclosure and transparency, fake reviews, etc.), I call him.

It’s one thing to know business law. It’s an entire thing altogether to know how it affects your services.

Fake Reviewers Target of NY Sting

We all know it’s bad to have employees and friends who are not customers write reviews of our products and services online. And yet…

The New York attorney general’s office just closed a year-long “sting” in which they fined 19 companies more than $350,000 in penalties for writing fake reviews.

Lasky covers the issue in a recent PR Week article called, “NY Attorney General Brings Astroturfers to their Knees.”

The suit not only covered the organizations that had fake reviews posted, but the agencies that worked with them.

A Personal Story

In 2006 we had a client who had released an app. They were very excited about it, but weren’t making any headway in the iTunes app store.

One of our young professionals, who worked with the client day-to-day, came into my office one afternoon and told me she’d been asked to write a review of the app in the store…and the client wanted all of us to do the same.

At the time, astroturfing and fake reviews weren’t considered illegal, but we knew enough to know it felt unethical.

We told the client we would not do that for them and they fired us.

I guess that ended up saving us quite a bit of money in penalties!

Beware PR Firms

While PR firms were not the target of this particular investigation, it’s something to be aware of and be cautious of when or if you are asked to write reviews on behalf of a client.

The NY attorney general’s office posed as a client to several SEO firms and discovered they were paying freelancers around the globe between $1 and $10 per review posted.

It’s not uncommon to hear about PR firms that are creating whisper campaigns or astroturfing. Know that if your firm participates in those kinds of practices, you could be next.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars for something that can so easily be avoided.

Avoid the Fake Reviews

The law is sometimes very vague and social still is the Wild, Wild West so it’s hard to know what’s right or wrong.

If you can’t use your moral compass as your guide because your executives or clients are asking you to do something that violates it, Lasky suggests the following four things to help you make your case.

  1. Review the terms of services. It’s all a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo and I’d venture to guess a good majority of us download apps and use sites after agreeing to their terms of services, but don’t actually read them. As a PR professional, it’s your job to not only read them, but to understand them so you don’t violate them.
  2. Know who you’re working with. If your clients, anyone on your team, or freelancers you hire for client work participate in fake reviews, you could be liable. This one scares me a little bit. It’s good to pay attention to the reviews posted on behalf of your clients and to speak up if anything looks fishy.
  3. Make your contracts clear. Lasky says an indemnity clause may not be enough because it may not cover false or misleading information. Talk to your attorney about what should be included to cover you, should someone do this without your knowledge.
  4. Protect your reputation. Warren Buffet said it best when he said, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.” In the PR business, all we have is our reputation. If yours is sullied, it will be very difficult to continue attracting top clients or to get that next job you’re dying to get.

All it takes is a little common sense and the cajones to step up and say, ‘This isn’t right.”

Yes, it could cost you a client or two, and while that is painful in the short-term, it’s a lot less so than being the target of an attorney general investigation.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • My message to businesses is if you think fake reviews will help you, and you don’t care about the means just the ends….be smart. Don’t email anyone or text anyone asking for their help. Just do it yourself. Not like you can’t create multiple accounts. Don’t ask friends or family to do something they might not normally do for anyone. Don’t use a relationship for this. Just do it yourself. If your business needs fake reviews to get going….maybe you should focus on your business. 
    What about the flipside? I  have a client who was attacked on Yelp! they had 4-5 1 star reviews all within 2 weeks all sounding the same and all fake based on the information written, for example claiming they ate a menu item that wasn’t available that week. We suspect a competitor did it. Is that also covered by this law?

    • Howie Goldfarb That is also covered. If you can prove they’re fake, they’ll take them down. I have a friend who had that happen. We went through the (very long) process to prove the reviews were fake and Yelp took them down.

      • ginidietrich we tried they only took down 2 of them.

        • Howie Goldfarb I’d go at it again!

        • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb As you know, Yelp wouldnt take ours fake ones down. They told us it was a matter of “opinion” and we couldnt prove they werent our client. We replied following your advice & best thing we got to happen was filtered reviews.

  • I was just having this conversation with a client a couple weeks ago. They wanted to set up an elaborate review incentive program at all their locations. Did you know that technically you aren’t even supposed to ask people to review you on Yelp? Instead, they just want you to indicate that you are on Yelp and if they review, they review. Here’s some additional research we uncovered regarding Yelp and Google: 
    Yelp Sues Over Fake Reviews
    Yelp Cracks Down on Incentivized Reviews
    From Google: We also discourage specialized review stations or kiosks set up at your place of business for the sole purpose of soliciting reviews. As a reviewer, you should not accept money or product from a business to write a review about them.
    With Yelp, we can’t actually “ask” for feedback but can let them know we are on yelp.

  • Guess I’ll take that batch of reviews off this month’s invoice. #jokes
    Unfortunately, Yelp is a bit like the Mafia of review sites, holding reviews hostage until you pony up for the advertising. Their predatory business practices are devaluing reviews in the eyes of lots of consumers, to the point where they’re almost becoming meaningless. I was recently watching an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where the proprietor was seeding glowing reviews of his own establishment — and locking horns with anyone who dared leave a negative review. The irony is that his food was shite, the negative reviews were warranted and he should have diverted that energy into running a better operation rather than picking internet fights.

    • jasonkonopinski I agree with you on Yelp, but this “sting” wasn’t just Yelp. It was iTunes, Amazon, and the like. We have to be VERY careful about the clients we work with because we could be guilty by association.

      • ginidietrich Oh very much so. While I absolutely don’t condone or defend the practice of placing fake reviews, I can see why it happens with such frequency — it’s the Amazon effect. 
        Ideally, the review distribution should look something like a handgun — five and four star reviews at the top, then trailing off into the threes, twos and ones. If I were promoting a book, I’d want to get as many reviews in place as possible when the book goes live on eStores, getting advance copies in the hands of readers. 
        Soliciting reviews is such a murky area, isn’t it?

        • jasonkonopinski It is…some of it seems okay because everyone does it, but that doesn’t make it so.

        • ginidietrich jasonkonopinski I do think it’s a murky area, especially these days where the line between “friend” and “acquaintance” and “colleague” gets blurred by social media. I understand Amazon discourages reviews by an author’s friends. But who counts as a friend? Someone who’s in my industry, who I’ve worked with on client projects over the years and we’ve had beers a couple of times? Someone I’ve never met in real life but we talk every day on Facebook? Etc.

    • CommProSuzi

      Does Yelp allow businesses to take down their business listing from the site? If you play, you take the good, you take the bad…the facts of life.
      If you choose not to play, you don’t get exposure.
      Try explaining this to clients. Instead of using negative reviews to identify pitfalls, they want to counter them. So you advise, “Improve your customer service, x, y, z,” and get that Planet X look. (Sadly, the last person I said this to needs to fire her business manager who is her husband. Yipes!)

      • CommProSuzi No, Yelp does not allow you to remove your listing. Anyone can list a business in Yelp, you dont even have to be the owner of the company. You can go on today and enter a firm you have done business with that isnt currently on there.
        I also dont care for the policy that if they “filter” reviews any new review shows up as the “1st Review” thats a bold faced lie. If a company has 8 filtered reviews, how can the next one be the 1st?

  • Asking for reviews is only logical if you’re promoting a new book or product, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The one and only time I’ve been asked to write a review for a book on Amazon, I was given an e-book preview for a month before it was published, and asked to evaluate it and write the review. No other instructions, nothing to get me to weight the review positively. I got to keep the book regardless of what I said, or even whether I wrote the review or not. That’s how you should go after reviews.

    • DebraCaplick You can even get in trouble for that. Usually you’re safe if the publisher asks on behalf of the author.

      • ginidietrich DebraCaplick They did – I never had any contact with the author. I was part of an online

  • It’s the internet; there is nothing fake about that….

  • thornley

    This is good practical advice Gini. And a great topic for Inside PR this week.

    • thornley Thanks, Joe! A good topic for discussion, for sure.

    • thornley You know, you’re the only one of the Inside PR triad who hasn’t been a guest on my podcast. We should do something about that. 🙂  cc  ginidietrich martinwaxman

  • LynetteYoung

    I think I might send this article to every client or almost-client that has asked me to do this or told me I “just don’t know how real businesses work” because I won’t help them plant fake reviews.
    As always, SpinSucks rocks!

    • LynetteYoung It’s totally understandable because business owners think, “It’s great we’re doing this, but what if no one does anything?” So they want to plant the reviews and it seems harmless. Not so much!

  • ElissaFreeman

    An important lesson! I’m also willing to bet many PR pros/firms don’t realize the ramifications of fake reviews – instead see it as part of ‘creating the narrative.’

    • ElissaFreeman The only time I would do it is if I use the product or visit the location and I disclosed we work together. That might still get it thrown off the page, but it won’t get us penalized, either.

      • ginidietrich ElissaFreeman Elissa, let’s hope you’re wrong about many PR pros/firms thinking fake reviews are part of the narrative. Sheesh!

        • EdenSpodek ElissaFreeman There are so many that create fake accounts to bolster likes and fans. They don’t think there is anything wrong with it.

  • JodiEchakowitz

    This is an important discussion that we’ve had with one of our clients. One of their competitors is not only posting fake reviews of their products (so easy to spot when the reviews across multiple sites are all the same), but is also posting comments on forums posing as customers. They’ve asked us what they should do and we’ve always counselled them to take the high road, continue to do what’s ethical, and be transparent in all their responses in public forums. The NYT sting operation was a great reminder for them that it’s not worth the risk to their reputation. I’m looking forward to sharing your post with them as well!

    • JodiEchakowitz If it helps, you can find the actual documents by Googling “astroturfing NY attorney general’s office.” That may help your case, as well.

  • Companies that try to game Wikipedia face a similar dilemma, methinks. I actually wrote last year.

    • Adam_Green Wikipedia is ruthless about taking down the fakes. Ruthless.

  • Tara Geissinger

    It’s always tempting to take the easy way out, but rarely worth it.

  • flashframe

    martinwaxman ginidietrich SpinSucks Great article, thanks for sharing, I think this is of value to lots of marketers

  • I think its about time the crack down on fake reviews.  There are too many out there, whether it be ones done by a firm itself to bolster their own rep, or ones done by competitors to make themselves look better than the competition, or retaliation reviews from disgruntled employees or customers.
    Anonymous reviews need to end. Companies have no defense against a bad, fake anonymous  review.  Good luck convincing the likes of Yelp that you have no such client as the person who did the bad review.  People posting fake reviews dont have to prove they were ever your client or employee. The review goes up and some are near impossible to get down.
    Business owners need some line of defense.

    • EricPudalov

      sydcon_mktg I recently saw a great response to a bad review on Buffer’s Twitter page.  Someone more or less ripped them apart for being a horrible app.  Whoever managed the page responded very kindly and said, “Thanks for the feedback.  We’re working on that.”  So it wasn’t fake, but I think they did a great job of customer service (instead of trying to cover it up)!

      • EricPudalov sydcon_mktg I agree, dont try to cover up or hide from a review that calls out a legitimate problem or issue with your product or service. None of us are perfect. I think a new potential customer who saw that response to a bad review would think the responding company cared about issues with their product and respected their clients point of view.
        If I was a customer of a company that publicly addressed my concern and worked diligently to fix their mistake, I would remain a customer, previous error or not. We all make mistakes, its all in how you handle it in the end.

    • sydcon_mktg And you know from experience…

  • It is a lazy shortcut conducted by businesses that don’t believe in the quality of their product. Period.

    • ClayMorgan In some cases. In others, they’re afraid no one is going to review them so they ask people to do it (or pay them to do it). That’s when the expectations talk comes into play: It takes time.

  • susancellura

    The scary part for me is the lack of ethics. Everywhere I look, it seems to rear its ugly head in one form or another. I’ve been in situations where I’ve said “that’s not right”. You would have thought I had two heads.  I have to live with myself and look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day. I prefer to sleep well knowing I did the best I could and I did the right things the right way.

    • susancellura Well said! We have lots of mirrors this home/office.

    • EricPudalov

      susancellura Absolutely!  At our organization, we like to promote our success stories; granted, there are some cases who are more difficult than others, but we’re not fabricating positive reviews! 🙂

    • susancellura We’ve had several situations where we’ve had to say, “You can’t do it that way” and they go ahead and do it. That’s always our cue for a graceful bow out.

      • susancellura

        ginidietrich Agreed.

      • EricPudalov

        ginidietrich susancellura That’s crazy!  Why ask for your help in the first place, then?  Sounds like some of your clients got overconfident (at least from your description).

  • DickCarlson

    “I found roaches in my food when I ate at Spin Sucks, and the waitress refused to give me my meal for free.  Also, the owner was very disrespectful to my monkey.”

  • When companies ask for “more reviews” of just anyone it usually points to deeper issues – they didn’t nurture customer relationships so they don’t have any real customers to ask for reviews, or their services suck so their real customers won’t give a good review. With most of our clients we see numerous opportunities for them to gracefully ask customers to leave reviews.

    • EricPudalov

      manamica I agree!  There was an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” with a restaurant called Amy’s Baking Company, and they had received a large number of negative reviews on Yelp.  The owners outright said that they wanted Gordon Ramsay to “tell people their food is good,” but from the show, it was obvious that that wasn’t the case.  Really a fake review can’t fix the larger problems, right?

      • EricPudalov manamica That crazy company has capitalized on its bad reviews. They’ve harnessed it into all sorts of other revenue streams.

  • wbsmith200

    ginidietrich Great piece and a cautionary tale for PR firms.

  • If it feels unethical, it is.  I had a client that had SO MANY  bad reviews it was like a tidal wave.  I requested that happy clients submit legitimate reviews, but they are no longer my client when I couldn’t ‘create’ enough of them.

  • If you have to boost your app/product with false reviews the problem isn’t your PR, it’s your product. The same can be said about looking to bury negative reviews or removing criticisms from social media platforms. If your product or project is truly useful and revolutionary – as most press releases claim – then it will speak for itself and generate great reviews. While it may not happen overnight, suffering through that uncomfortable period of “why aren’y people posting reviews” is better than panicking and being made to look the fool in the end.

    • dave_link And, everyone is human. If you don’t have some criticism or negative reviews, it doesn’t seem genuine.

  • Gini Dietrich

    The only easy way out worth taking is…crap. I got nothin

  • ginidietrich

    chillygal Thanks, Jeri!

  • ginidietrich

    kateupdates I’m hungry

    • kateupdates

      ginidietrich I am too. Unfortunately I have starbursts sitting right next to me …

      • ginidietrich

        kateupdates So you won’t make me a snack?

        • kateupdates

          ginidietrich Don’t you have elves to do that sort of thing?

        • ginidietrich

          kateupdates I do, but jasonkonopinski is busy

        • jasonkonopinski

          ginidietrich kateupdates Make your own snack!

        • kateupdates

          All I can think about is the fabulous RebeccaAmyTodd and all the glorious IRL time we will have tomorrow. ginidietrich jasonkonopinski

        • kateupdates

          jasonkonopinski ginidietrich Ha! Where’s JB? It’s his turn.

        • ginidietrich

          kateupdates jasonkonopinski Now Kate. You know darn well JB would eat it

        • ginidietrich

          jasonkonopinski YOU ARE MEAN kateupdates

        • ginidietrich

          kateupdates That’s fine. I get her for a week next week RebeccaAmyTodd jasonkonopinski

        • jasonkonopinski

          ginidietrich kateupdates RebeccaAmyTodd Three days here!

        • jasonkonopinski

          ginidietrich kateupdates RebeccaAmyTodd I want caramels.

  • I think somebody needs to create a “Moral Compass App,”  because it’s a sad-but-true situation when we can’t each find our own moral compasses, let alone follow them.  We as individuals need to be able to reach beyond the expedient, safe and comfortable…. and I’m also guessing that, should your employer fire you because you refused to break the law, you might have a case there, too…. another question for Mr. Lasky, Esq.

    • creativeoncall yes, yes, yes and more yes to this! So well said

    • creativeoncall To that end, it’s VERY difficult for people to stand up for their ethics when a job is on the line. We all have bills to pay and that sometimes overwhelms the desire to do the right thing. I know when I worked in a big agency, standing up for my ethics was not a big deal because the people I worked for had strong ethics. But that’s not the case for everyone. Sometimes you have to silently look for another job while doing the dirty work you despise. 
      Not everyone can yell, “You can’t fire me! I quit!” to their boss like I did (it was a job I had in college).

  • It is funny to me how otherwise sane (ish) people completely lose track of the lines of ethics when it comes to review sites. I’ve seen it happen so many times and there is just some sort of disconnect in many clients minds of why this practices is wrong. 
    I had a client who actually offered to incentivize his employees and their family members to write positive reviews for him….When I talked to him about why that was not appropriate in any way, he had an absolute inability to understand. It was mindboggling (although this client also attempted to pay both me and other contractors with food (it was a fast food restaurant), soooo….)

    • LauraPetrolino Is this the olden days? I’ll do your PR if you give me a chicken.

      • ginidietrich It was burgers, Gini! Burgers!!! Please have some respect for my craft.  I wouldn’t work just for chickens, geez!

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  • MichaelToebeCMC

    jasondyk SpinSucks Thank you for posting. We all know this happens. Incredibly unethical. Disappointing that not all see it that way.

    • jasondyk

      MichaelToebeCMC pleasure 🙂 those folks at SpinSucks got lots of good content

      • MichaelToebeCMC

        jasondyk MichaelToebeCMC SpinSucks I’ll start following them. Thank you for the head’s up.

  • TopShelfCopy

    MattCarracino Thanks for sharing, Matt! And also for sharing my Twitter handle. Just luv ya! 😀

    • MattCarracino

      TopShelfCopy YW Laura and the feeling is mutual! 😉

  • ginidietrich

    DebWeinstein xoxo

    • DebWeinstein

      ginidietrich you do such great stuff. xoxo

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  • Loved the Warren Buffet quote. Just hard to believe people would head down that bad ethics dark alley of fake reviews.

    • dbvickery I just read that Rupert Murdoch had his PR staffers create fake accounts to engage critics for FOX. Some of them had up to 100 different accounts and they used their home Internet connections so it wouldn’t be traced back to the media organization.

      • ginidietrich dbvickery Things like that have a way of “coming home to roost”.

  • CommProSuzi

    I wonder what this will do to all those firms that were involved in posting “Is Company X a scam?” on scads of sites.

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