When does PR become astroturfing?

Boundaries are all-but nonexistent in the world of writing today. Brands publish more content than publishers, writers do their own PR, PRs do SEO, and SEOs basically just annoy everybody else. So it’s not surprising that in this omnishambolic world companies are pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to give themselves a leg-up. Two prime examples crossed my desk this week, which highlight the problems at both ends of the writing industry.

The first was the ludicrous conditions imposed by House PR in order for journalists to get accreditation for last night’s BRIT Awards. In order to get a press pass, journos were asked to agree to the following conditions (as per the email published by the Press Gazette):

  • Social media support from both publication and personal Twitter feed
  • Live tweeting from the event including @MasterCardUK handle and #PricelessSurprises and to retweet @MasterCardUK tweets throughout the night where appropriate
  • Post event – tweet directing followers to @MasterCardUK BRITs YouTube videos
  • Pre-event coverage of MasterCard’s Priceless Surprise video edits with either Laura Mvula, Kylie Minogue and/or Pharrell Williams – to include full credit for MasterCardUK and #PriclessSurprises
  • All features to be pushed on publications social feeds – to include @MasterCardUK and #PricelessSurprises
  • MasterCard inclusion in post event write-up (print and online) including #PriclessSurprises hashtag and somethingforthefans.co.uk URL
  • Post event write up presence on publication homepage (where possible)
  • Inclusion of MasterCard branded event night images in post event piece
  • Post event – coverage support for MasterCard music activity in 2014 (Beyonce & JT)

House PR also helpfully included some pro forma tweets to help out uninspired journalists -

Really excited to be heading down to @BRITAwards tonight with @MasterCardUK #PricelessSurprises

As anybody with half a brain would expect journalists rejected these conditions wholehearted, even Jon Snow got involved -

Upon seeing the shitstorm they had caused, House PR wisely backed down and journalists were allowed to attend without shilling for Mastercard.


Meanwhile, over in personal computing land, this email has been doing the rounds announcing a “blogger competition” to win a Microsoft Surface.


I’m working with Currys to give away two Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablets (worth £799.99) – we’re looking for bloggers to tell us about their “portable office,” i.e where you blog, play, work from and what tech you use.

Does this sound something like you’d like to enter? If so, details are below.

To enter:

  • Create a short post on your blog summarising how, when and where you use portable tech (i.e. blogging, gaming, chilling out, or catching up with work)
  • Tweet your post to @CurrysPCWorld, including the hashtag #PortableOffice to confirm your entry.
  • We will review all of the entries and two lucky winners will be selected based on the originality and concept.

Don’t forget to direct your readers and friends to http://techtalk.currys.co.uk/blog/[competition]-win-a-surface-pro-2-portableoffice/ so they can take part.

I’m really looking forward to reading your blog post, good luck!

To me this seems like a pretty obvious link building / astroturfing attempt, and should be rejected as quickly and with as much vehemence as House PR’s BRIT Award conditions. Note there is no rule that you have to disclose why you are writing the blog post, and head over to the Competition Terms and Conditions and you’ll notice that by entering you are giving Currys “a perpetual, worldwide licence to use, adapt and reproduce [your] entry in any medium.”

You’re not just entering a contest, you’re writing an advert for Currys and hosting it on your own website forever.

Unfortunately many bloggers don’t have as good a critical eye as the typical journalist, and will do just about anything if you wave an £800 tablet in their faces. Pay a quick visit to the #PortableOffice hashtag and, yup, loads of bloggers are taking the bait. Some have disclosed the purpose behind the posts, all seem to be linking back to the Curry’s page (so in that respect their link building campaign has been a success), but some are pure advertorial.

This girl is “saving up for a Surface Pro 2″ (as if anyone could believe that), which she “discovered whilst shopping at my local Currys”. Pure coincidence, then, that her post went live the very same day Currys’ agency emailed out details of the competition.

It’s not all bad though; some bloggers have seen through the campaign -

Journalists vs bloggers

So there we have two similar campaigns, both involving PR agencies overstepping the line. Only when dealing with journalists were the overzealous PRs rebuffed – the bloggers swallowed the bait with nary a complaint. Where does the onus lie in such situations? Journalists’ entire job is to challenge authority and ask questions, so it’s only natural they would draw attention to an attempted corporate whitewash. Very few bloggers are bloggers professionally, so the vast majority may not realise they are being used as pawns in a multinational organisation’s marketing campaign and are, basically, working for free.

The responsibility for acting responsibly, then, must lie with the agencies putting these campaigns together. We’re all publishers, lines are blurring, and experimentation is a good thing – but not if you’re taking advantage of people.

So when does PR become astroturfing? Judging by the last 48 hours, whenever a PR agency can get away with it.

Photo by Dominic Alves