I woke up on Saturday morning to a tag on Facebook with an article from The Daily Kos. The article, which has leaked information about a program from HBGary, describes astroturfing, bad publicity, and downright unethical public relations all bundled in one.

You know that gets me going!

The story.

HBGary is a defense contractor that works with the government (think Department of Defense and CIA) whose website doesn’t give you a lot of information. I guess when you work with the government, and you’re really good at your job, your site doesn’t need to say anything.

Neither here nor there.

Apparently Anonymous (the hacker who is responsible for a lot of the tightly secured information leaked to WikiLeaks) got into HBGary servers, discovered they are mounting an attack against WikiLeaks, and leaked a bunch of files. There is a lot of scary stuff in there, which I guess you would expect from a security company working with our government’s largest security agencies.

But the leaked documents that are interesting to me are the ones that talk about how they are creating personas to “attack” journalists, bloggers, commenters, and real people to “smear enemies and distort the truth.”

From some of the leaked materials:

To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter,  blogs, forums,  buzz,  and myspace under created names that fit the profile ( satellitejockey,  hack3rman,  etc ) .    These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds,  retweets,  and linking together social media commenting between platforms.    With a pool of these accounts to choose from,  once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name,  lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected  #  of previously created social media accounts,  automatically pre-aging the real accounts.

Oh, but wait! It gets better. Another document describes how they use automation so one person can represent a lot of different personas, doing the work of many with the stroke of a key.

Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona.  In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example.  There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.

The PR Perspective

I can’t imagine this isn’t happening in other companies, at global PR firms, and within government agencies, but the idea that someone will create personas on the social web to show consensus, is downright unconstitutional.

Companies creating personas to follow you on Twitter, read your blog, friend you on Facebook.

Personas who will group together and voice an opinion to change consensus.

Personas who will read your blog and gang up on you.

Personas who will change public perception because of the sheer number of “people” talking about one side of the argument.

I feel like the world, right now, is all about bad publicity as a means for building awareness. It’s quite disconcerting. It definitely does not help the perception people have of the PR industry.

These things are happening and the only thing we can do is refuse to do business this way. Who’s with me?

(Before you go to the comments, head over to our Facebook fan page to see who won The Now Revolution contest!)

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich