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Gini Dietrich

Fake Reviews Fined; PR Firms Beware

By: Gini Dietrich | October 8, 2013 | 
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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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

90 comments
SuziC
SuziC

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

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

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....)

creativeoncall
creativeoncall

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.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

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

dave_link
dave_link

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.

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

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.

manamica
manamica

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. 

Latest blog post: Lightbugs

susancellura
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.

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

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

Latest blog post: Livefyre Conversation

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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). 

EricPudalov
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
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! :-)

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

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

EricPudalov
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).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Fake Reviews Fined; PR Firms Beware A recent sting in New York fined 19 companies for fake reviews, which included SEO firms. While PR agencies weren’t investigated, they could be next. […]

  2. […] Fake Reviews Fined; PR Firms Beware | Gini Dietrich via Spin Sucks. […]

  3. […] When using these sites, however, do not submit reviews on your own or ask your staff to do so. This goes without saying but it’s important to mention, because it could cost a great deal of money in fines. (Read Fake reviews fined, PR firms beware.) […]