Slippery Slopes

SlipperyslopeFew people inspire me to think harder than Tom Foremski at SiliconValleyWatcher (after all, he spurred me to dream up the Social Media Release).  Tom got me puzzling all over again last week with his post on “The Killer Pitch?” (and his follow-up post).  The premise:


While there are lots of bad pitches out there, there are also lots of good pitches. Even with a perfect pitch, sometimes a reporter won’t write the story because there is not enough time, there’s too much else to do.

But here’s a killer pitch. It’s one that I haven’t heard yet but it’s only a matter of time.

” … and we have the ability to drive a lot of traffic to your story.”

In a world where reporters are increasingly rewarded not on the quality of their work but on how much traffic their stories attract — this becomes the killer pitch.


In his posts Tom explores the ethical and practical challenges.  Forget about “tasteful,” would it be ethical for a PR firm to suggest such a thing to a  journalist?  Tom says yes, and he’s right to note that PR firms’ raison d’etre is to drive positive coverage for their clients.

The better question is whether the journalist has the ethical backbone to resist this siren song if the story idea is a bad/inappropriate one, or to write the article with no regard for whether it will meet the PR firm’s standards for “positive” (promotable) coverage.

From a practical standpoint, Tom suggests it’s not so easy for a PR agency to drive traffic at its whim.  Yet he also points out:


News aggregators love to pick up on “popular” or “trending” stories. A relatively small traffic boost from a PR agency can become magnified if the story makes it onto a ‘most popular’ list.


Consider what might happen if an agency like Edelman or Porter-Novelli decided to try to “move the needle” on a particular piece of client coverage.  These agencies boast THOUSANDS of account staff, some of whom have THOUSANDS of followers (e.g., Edelman’s David Armano, who runs a popular blog and has 24,000 Twitter followers) … If these thousands of employees were mandated to tweet about the client’s news article, and/or to Digg it, and/or to StumbleUpon it, etc., and those thousands of tweets were RT’d by dozens (or hundreds!) of their own followers, and so on … Well, pretty soon you’d see a needle moved.

You’d see that client article as a trending topic on Twitter, a top item on Digg, etc. — which might catch the eye of yet another mainstream journalist, who unwittingly sees this heat+light as evidence of a hot story worth yet another article.

It certainly seems like a slippery slope.  But it’s hard for me to offer an opinion on this, as my agency is far smaller than an Edelman or P-N; thus to call it “unethical” could just as easily lead to suggestions of sour-grapes on my part.  When SHIFT is over 1,000 employees, I’ll think hard on where those ethical lines must be drawn in pursuit of client satisfaction.

You think it’s cut and dry?  You think it’s unethical, period?  OK, consider this: one of your clients offers a green technology that could save the world.  Asking your 1,000+ employees to RT the article might help draw further media attention to the client’s very worthy product.  What do you do?  … See? – not so easy now, is it?

In any event, there are enough clever people at those megalithic PR organizations that I have to think they already considered — and rejected — such schemes.  For now.

What do you think?

Posted on: January 18, 2010 at 8:20 am By Todd Defren
85 Responses to “Slippery Slopes”


  • Media agencies have got to be careful about what is ethical and has the potential to make money and keep clients happy.

    May a better idea in terms of social media would be for every staff member to have a blog that they wrote on say once a month about their area. If you have 100 members of staff that is a lot of good quantity content each year!

  • absoloot says:

    Interesting to ponder, to say the least. I like to believe that journalistic integrity will win out, but after the last presidential campaign, I think I’d be terribly wrong. Still, given the lack of ethics in mass media today(better known as Social Network Media) I doubt much of a problem would occur from a large company attempting to push the needle from within their own walls. While quantity equates to money, a good product is still going to need a quality backer to “explode” in the changing face of SNM. We may not be there yet, but let’s face it, there is a lot of junk on the web right next to the good and we are getting increasingly good at sifting for gold…not to mention smart-servers that sift and search for us. Besides, it is in a quality sponsor we trust, and we trust them not bc of the quantity of followers, but the consistency of their information.

  • Ralph Berry says:

    Great debate Todd. At my agency, we had quite a discussion, and the comments in this string are all insightful To me the questions of both selling the story on the ability to drive traffic for a perhaps average (or worse) story and of “forcing” employees to tweet something they might not believe in come down to five critical questions of credibility.
    - Your credibility with the reporter.
    - The reporter’s credibility as a journalist.
    - Agency management’s credibility with its employees.
    - Brand/Client credibility to customers and potential customers.
    - Agency credibility to other clients.

    Real news, real issues and meaningful conversations will rise to the top and get the audiences they deserve. Forced news, issues and conversations will ultimately be seen for what they are. When the PR agency becomes the media itself, the credibility of both diminishes. To me a good pitch must be about the subject, not the subject itself.

  • Don Burnett says:

    I don’t really get what you are saying because it’s not about always what other people think if things get moved down the chain. It’s more like dominoes over something like a house of cards..

    Isn’t this all about the interest the account holder has on their individual story and how much attention the reciever of the story has on this. Sure one company can have a lot of employees, but there are just more out there that don’t work for said firm..

    This isn’t communism or even socialism going on here. I don’t RT myself and wouldn’t just because a story is coming out of an organization. I myself have lots of opportunity to do so.. We live in a free society still remember that..

  • What’s the “issue” here? Using your employees as shills is the essence of sleaze. Like PR and marketing needed more!

  • Todd- Great debate going on here and on Twitter. The back and forth with you, Beth, Bill, Kami et al. is what Twitter dreams are made of!

    Kellye, Amy and Kami make a valid argument that the numbers bump is just that, SEO for the sake of SEO. Will the additional traffic create relationships that build community, drive sales? It is rough slope to slide down just to pretty up the numbers.

    Mike’s point about client advocacy is valid, except when advocacy turns to astroturfing. I agree with Bill, Nick that forced tweets and client pimping is not ethical. It’s also interesting from the reporter side, as Keith mentions performance being tied to traffic.

    Didn’t have much to add, but loving the discussion. Thanks.

  • Great discussion here Todd and interesting thoughts. I also haven’t read the original piece but I would refer public relations professionals — and big agency heads — back to the Code of Ethics for our profession. Honesty and transparency are cornerstones of that Code. Asking employees to use their personal accounts to spread word about a journalist’s story hardly seems honest or transparent. If, and only if, an employee states the story involves an agency client, there might be some gray area here but the requirement from the employer is really bothersome here.

    I also agree with Kami’s comment that driving traffic results in a positive result for the client. I thought public relations was about creating changes in behavior, not about clips and counts. But that’s another debate we’ve been having for years too.

    So, in the end, I think this practice is both unethical and not the best practice in public relations. I hope it does not gain traction.

  • Sue Heuman says:

    I think offering journalists enhanced readership through social media is clearly unethical. I also think most journalists would be offended by this gesture. If something is truly ‘news’ the ‘needle will move’ organically, on its own.

    With respect to asking staff to RT client messages – is there a difference between asking people to use their personal accounts versus their work accounts? Use of a work account to promote client stories is an essential part of a social media strategy, is it not?

    • Yingna Li says:

      I agree. I think the line is quite clear. It’s o.k. to suggest a journalist a story, but not to ask the agency’s a thousand or so employees to fabricate a phenomenon. The reason PR write news releases, teasers or pitches is to grab journalists attention and persuade them to write stories about the clients and their products. However, to have the agency’s employees tweet about the client’s new article is almost an equivalent to a false testimonial, which is unacceptable. If the green product is really going to do the world good, why don’t the agencies promote it through a right channel, such as doing a news release or a commercial?

  • Todd,
    Thanks for initiating the discussion. I view the type of pitch you refer to as the 2.0 version of PR practitioners promising ink to prospective clients, which is the 1.0 version. In either case, I think it’s unethical and diametrically opposed to social media transparency.

    Somewhere in this discussion, I think it’s important that PR professionals adhere to their planning, which may or may not call for social media discussions on behalf of clients. For those clients with a social media policy in place, I agree with Bill. Hope the large agencies will decry the practice of pooling their numbers for the needle’s sake.

  • Todd – Very interesting topic. I definitely think this falls into a grey area. On it’s surface I don’t think telling a reporter that a story will drive traffic is unethical. Falsely manufacturing that traffic blurs the line in my opinion though, especially if you’re mandating that agency employees retweet, digg, stumbleupon etc. the story.

    As Kelly and Lisa mentioned, not being able to follow through on the driving that traffic could then be an issue as well. IMO, this probably isn’t a sustainable way to pitch stories.

  • Kami huyse says:

    I think this is just as likely to irritate a reporter as to make him happy. Tom is a great guy, but he is the OWNER of his media and therefore has more interest in traffic for adverting and impressions.

    Then again, what is traffic all by itself? It is what people DO after they come to content that matters. Will they become subscribers, will they follow a course of action?

    Honestly I find it interesting how so many people are willing to prostitute themselves for a little bump in traffic – if you have a long-view, relationship-building outlook it doesn’t make any sense.

  • Bill Sledzik says:

    For PR professionals, these may be the most thought-provoking posts from Foremski since “Die Press Release, Die, Die, Die!” So it’s appropriate I learn about them from you, Todd.

    Anyone who sees this process as anything but manipulative, ergo, unethical, is rationalizing. There is no dilemma here. If a thousand or more employees of any PR firm are ordered to blog or tweet a given client’s story to drive traffic, they’re corrupting the channels of communication. Disclosure of the client relationship makes the act less egregious, but when those items are passed along, I’m betting the disclosures disappear, victims of Twitter’s 140-character limit.

    True, we are advocates for our clients. But advocacy should not include what the infamous @AmandaChapel calls “surreptitious selling.” And that’s an apt description of this practice. I hope the big agencies in 2.0 circles will condemn it, and I’m hoping the influencers also speak out against it.

    Will it matter? Probably not, as I suspect it’s already happening.

    I’m a little surprised this discussion hasn’t exploded. It’s such a critical topic that cuts to the core of transparency and authenticity the social web. Here’s hoping more folks join in the discussion.

    • @techguerilla says:

      re: Pitching a reporter that a story can drive traffic as a “sales tactic” is to me the more egregious of the two actually. Primarily because if accepted it promotes the value of traffic over content. Meaning, shock value, inaccurate/misleading headlines, etc, etc. all become more important (the traffic drivers) than what is contained within. When you start manipulating your content simply to take advantage of this you are essentially saying that the reporters traffic is more valuable to you than your clients image.

      As for “moving the needle”, it would seem to me a self-regulating problem. The only way to maintain this type of tactic is to do it often. In Social Media there is nothing shunned more than a off-topic spouting head. You become an automaton at that point and your future is sure to be filled with shouts of #FAIL

      • Bill Sledzik says:

        To @techguerilla’s point, promising traffic could, indeed, influence the story’s content and tone. And while influencing the journalist will always be part of our job, creating financial incentives to skew a story is just wrong.

        This isn’t unlike the old arguments about junkets and freebies for journalists. Let’s say we invite a writers on a 3-day holiday to Palm Spring where we hold a press conference amid golf outings and cocktail parties, then add a generous package of swag. Like the traffic-builder, we’re offering “bait” that isn’t tied to the merits of the story. It’s more like a bribe.

        And lest we forget, at least half the onus to act ethically here belongs to the journalist — if you can figure out what a journalist is these days.

  • Mike maney says:

    From the agency and client’s view, it would be unethical *not* to do as Todd outlines above. Afterall, it is the overall agency’s role — not the individual account team’s — to promote its clients to the fullest of its abilities. Not saying it is right and effective over the long-term, but…

  • Looking aside from the ethical issues, what happens if you actually are able to “drive the needle” for a story? Would all your clients then expect you to do the same for them, and where would you draw the line of what type of stories (both in terms of newsworthy content and outlet prominence) would receive this added effort?

  • nick vehr says:

    To me the line is pretty clear. If meaningful social media engagement is about authenticity and transparency, then mandating a large employee base to RT a link on their personal accounts is neither.

    Importantly, because the line is clear (at least for me) doesn’t mean the decision is easy. Perhaps the firm’s creative energy should be directed toward making the story stand on its own rather than falsely propping it up.

    Great post and great link to Foremski. Thanks

  • Todd – Certainly a very interesting concept, and frankly, one of the first pressing matters in the PR biz that I have come across in 2010. My take on it is while I don’t necessarily believe the concept of promising reporters that you can drive direct traffic to their article if they write about your client is inherently unethical or bad, the thing of it is, if you’re going to make a promise like that, you better damn well be able to back it up … big time. Particularly if more reporter’s jobs will be tied in to the traffic and performance of their online articles, to tell a reporter that you can effectively boost their job performance – if they write about your client – is a pretty risky move on the PR person’s/angency’s part.

    I think it’s great that we as PR pros are working harder to be more accountable with our outreach efforts, but I think we need to be very careful, and maybe pull back a little – as an industry – when we start talking about ways in which we, or our agencies, can dramatically “push the needle” for stories or boost a reporter’s career. Those are two areas in which I’m not sure we want to stake our personal and/or agency reputations on just yet.


  • I don’t this this is unethical and frankly I see more of this everyday. Kellye makes a good point however – is this really a sustainable practice? Probably not. Since we are in the business of relationships, I would hate to promise something to a journalist that I couldn’t deliver

  • amymengel says:

    Certainly not an easy issue to tackle, and I don’t feel it’s cut and dry. While telling a reporter that a story can/might drive traffic as a “sales tactic” when pitching may not be that bad, intentionally using staff to juice page views seems suspect.

    It is a reminder, however, how SEO continues to become more and more intertwined with PR and media. It made me think of Shel Holtz’s recent post about the “death of puns” in headline writing. In print media, a clever headline may catch the eye of someone who’s browsing through the pages. On the web, however, people tend to search out information and thus headlines need to contain those keywords.

  • Rex says:

    In my opinion, it is unethical. I also think (well, mostly hope) that it’s a non-problem. If an agency forced people to shill on their own blogs or Twitter accounts, they’d lose a lot of credibility over time, especially now that they have to disclose financial relationships.

    There’s a big difference between “sharing my experience with this brand” (which you do a lot of here, and which I’m appreciative of) and “this brand’s great; my boss told me to tell you that.”

    I think the green product will be fine on its own… the employees would be the ones suffering the most in the end.

  • Kellye Crane says:

    A fascinating topic to think about. I don’t believe this strategy is unethical necessarily, but it would have limited effectiveness as an ongoing strategy. PR pros who shill their clients’ news on Twitter on a regular basis are not as frequently retweeted by the community and their motives are clearly transparent. Even if the goal was to direct traffic for just one piece of news, seeing the same article shared by hundreds of people on the same day over various channels would likely result in diminishing returns.

    I imagine all PR pros sometimes share client news when appropriate and in a way the adds value to their followers. But a vast, coordinated effort seems unlikely to work repeatedly.

  • jeffscott says:

    Great piece, Todd. Since I haven’t yet had a chance to read Tom’s posts, here’s my take on your question of whether it’s acceptable for an agency to mandate its staff to “push the needle” using their personal accounts: it is never ethical to require employees to take a particular position on a clients’ work via their personal social media accounts. I think “encouraging” employees to favour clients’ work via their personal accounts poses even more insidious ethical questions. Will those who “choose” to so be regarded as team players vs. those who do not? Will this impact remuneration or job advancement possibilities?

    As any high school debater will tell you, the thing about slippery slopes is they’re usually more about smoke and mirrors than real problems. The merit of discussing any given slope (as you have here) is in exploring its possible repercussions. At the end of the post you ask whether the end (world-saving technology is promoted globally) justifies the means (requiring employees to promote this news via their own social media account). My feeling – or, more appropriately, my hope – is that that this news would earn a large audience on its own merits (“cream rises to the top”), precluding the need to force it down everyone’s twitter stream, blog, Facebook wall or RSS reader.

    Clichés aside, I think one of the most important benefits of social media in communications is that it really does value authenticity and transparency. If a client’s work is truly revolutionary people will hear about it. Ideally, reaction to client news would involve a lot of people taking the same social action in a short time frame (posting it to twitter or their Facebook walls, “liking” it in Google Reader, etc.), but I think the day we start selling “social media needle moving” as a service is the day social media implodes: it’s unsustainable. “Bought news” will be identified with increasing ease and filtered appropriately precluding the value of such inorganic promotion.

    This is very interesting stuff indeed! Now I’ll post a link to your story on Twitter and let my Facebook friends know about it too: I think some will be genuinely interested.



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