When ‘grassroots’ public affairs work crosses a line
When it comes to public affairs firms’ work with politicians, the use of opposition research to discredit rivals or weaken their position on an issue is par for the course. Usually, it involves flipping dug-up revelations to a reporter, whose subsequent coverage can change the narrative.
Firms on both sides of the aisle also deploy opposition research for private sector clients.
Think of a retailer attempting to block a competitor’s real estate development in a key market by bringing to the fore their poor labor practices.
Or private entities might commission opposition research to better respond to groups who attack your interests, as the National Education Association, The US’ largest teachers’ union, hoped to do in defending the integration of critical race theory in school curriculum.
However, in their attempt to undermine competitors for a client, some firms have flirted with the dark side — or rather, the “dark arts” of PR strategy, such as astroturfing. The term is used to describe fake grassroots movements. It could be a petition whose signatories are concealed because they’re fraudulent or blog and social media posts written by comms staffers disguised as concerned everyday citizens.
In a hyper-scrutinised, fact-checked media environment, dark arts PR can be a dangerous discipline for a firm’s reputation. This is evident after two shops, Targeted Victory and Global Strategy Group, found themselves the subject of negative press coverage. Hired by Meta to make the case to the public and lawmakers that TikTok is a “threat” to young people, not Facebook, The Washington Post reported that Targeted Victory planted op-eds and letters to the editor in major and local newspapers.
It also worked in October to spread rumors of a “Slap A Teacher TikTok challenge,” even though no such challenge ever turned up in searches on the fast-growing app. Despite just being a rumor, the danger of the challenge was covered by both regional and mainstream media. It appears the rumor was, in fact, started on Facebook.
A Targeted Victory director also asked for ideas on local political reporters who could serve as a “back channel” for anti-TikTok messages, according to an internal email viewed by The Washington Post reporter. The director said the firm “would definitely want it to be hands off.”
Agency pros say it is all above board to use opposition research against a competitor if the information is credible and transparently sourced and seeded. But some argue Targeted Victory crossed a line.
“They could have made their case with a few legitimate TikTok challenges that led to a few people getting hurt,” says Justine Griffin, principal at Rasky Partners. “But it was clear Facebook was looking to get the interest of the media with the most salacious stories and gossip possible, even if it was of dubious credibility.”
This wasn’t the first time Facebook has found itself the subject of unflattering coverage about the work it has hired a PR firm to do. In 2011, Burson-Marsteller planted anti-Google stories about user privacy in mainstream media, while refusing to disclose Facebook as the source of those stories.
It seems daring of Facebook to keep hiring firms to execute dubious smear tactics, given how common media leaks have become for the social media juggernaut. Others just call it arrogance, indicative of the leadership mindset in the fiercely competitive tech sector.
“There is this real macho, arrogant attitude to some of these tech leaders. They think of themselves as disruptors, and so, it’s like they would rather punch a competitor on an issue rather than start a dialogue,” says Griffin. “With Facebook, the arrogance is also reflected in the fact that they obviously don’t think they will get caught on these tactics.”
Or, if they do, it is worth it, if they successfully seed rumors and divert public worry from Facebook.
“You get the sense that if Mark Zuckerberg did a risk-reward analysis, he would consider the risk of getting called out worth it, if it means a chance of taking down TikTok,” says Griffin.
PRWeek reached out to Targeted Victory and asked if they leveraged “unfounded anxieties” in people to stoke an anti-TikTok sentiment.
The firm directed PRWeek to a series of tweets from its CEO Zak Moffatt. In one, he calls the story “manufactured.” In another, Moffatt claims the reporter “not only mischaracterizes the work we do, but key points are simply false. We tried to reach out to The Washington Post to further talk through them, but never got a response.”
The reporter disputed that she had, in fact, responded.
Targeted Victory also provided to PRWeek a statement from Moffatt.
“Targeted Victory’s corporate practice manages bipartisan teams on behalf of our clients. It is public knowledge we have worked with Meta for several years and we are proud of the work we have done,” it reads.
While not talking specifically about Facebook, David Vermillion, senior strategist and MD at Firehouse Strategies, says clients and firms need to resist letting their ambition get the better of them in opposition work.
“When you’re working on these high stakes, high-profile issues for some of the world’s biggest companies, there is a temptation to adopt this win-at-all-costs mentality. And when it is the realm of public affairs, you have a lot of seasoned pros who come from the bare-knuckle campaign trail,” says Vermillion.
“The win-at-all costs mentality can dominate how you approach the goal, but you have to temper that temptation by making sure you are protecting the client’s reputation, first and foremost, and using honest and transparent tactics to communicate,” he says.
“The right way to do grassroots campaign is to think about it as a sophisticated word-of-mouth campaign that you are tying to seed. It means understanding the target audience – what their values are and what motivates them – and find that network of individuals that is around them, and educate them,” Vermillion adds. “The hope is that they will understand the value of the information, and carry it forth to their own constituents and network and have those conversations.”
Griffin suggests a simple rule to keep tactics in check. “Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if our plan and the work we’re doing lands on the front page of the newspaper?’”
If it would make you uncomfortable, it’s likely because your plan uses potential deceitful and inauthentic tactics.
Global Strategy Group, meanwhile, faced client blowback after CNBC reported that Amazon hired it to create materials to curb employees at a fulfilment center in Staten Island from voting to unionise.
In this case, it wasn’t the opposition tactics that rubbed people the wrong way. It was that GSG, a polling partner for a pro-Biden super PAC ahead of the 2020 election, would work on anti-union campaign at all. The firm has a long history with clients like Services Employees International Union, one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. In response, SEIU, which had most recently worked with GSG last year, cut ties with the firm.
For some, it felt like an agency that works with clients fighting for climate change legislation, but then turning around and quietly working with a fossil fuel producer to cast doubt on climate change.
The firm initially defended the work, before issuing an apology on its website. “While there have been factual inaccuracies in recent reports about our work for Amazon, being involved in any way was a mistake,” it reads. “We are deeply sorry.”
It goes on to say that, “As we move forward, we are committed to supporting the rights of workers to organise. A coalition of labor unions helped establish new standards that prohibit companies, like ours, that work for Democratic Party candidates and organisations, from doing work that opposes workers’ efforts to organise.
“This also includes working on campaigns or as part of coalitions that seek to categorise workers in ways that make it harder for them to organise or qualify for benefits. We fully agree to these new standards and will be incorporating them into our client contracts.”
Pros note it was the firm that took the reputational hit, not Amazon whose position against unions is no surprise.
GSG, which earlier this month was acquired by Milan-based SEC Newgate Group, had revenues of $54 million in 2021.
The lesson learned? Public affairs firm should always consider the optics to all its stakeholders when taking on complex, highly sensitive work, says Dan Meyers, deputy managing director of APCOs Washington, DC, office,
“The strategy and tactics deployed by any consultancy should align with both their own values and those of the client,” he says. “When taking on any complicated or high-profile assignment, it is important to assess the impact for the consultancy’s stakeholders, clients, and employees as those of the client.”