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The bad reputation of PR

“Don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency – she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse”, is a well-known quote. Maybe the same could be said about the PR profession.

Last week I noticed a public relations term that I haven’t encountered before – Black PR, meaning the practice of paying journalists for coverage. Apparently this is a common practice in for example Russia and other nearby countries. PR Week recently wrote that the Ukrainian Association of Public Relations (UAPR) for the first time ever had made a resolution condemning a black PR campaign. The campaign in question was allegedly arranged by telecommunications company Altimo and designed to “smear Norwegian rival Telenor and the country of Norway”.

“Telenor has submitted planning documents from Altimo to the UAPR, which it claims show various journalists were paid off – $4,000 for a story, in one instance – and that Altimo had a clear and deliberate strategy to destroy the reputation of its rival. Altimo, owned by Russian company Alfa, has insisted the documents are false and, in turn, accused Telenor of waging a smear campaign against its company.”

The opposite of “black PR”, according to one comment in the article, is “Western-style communications”. But not all Western countries seem to be as “clean” as we wish to think. At least not if we should believe Toni Muzi Falconi, a Senior Counsel at an Italian management consultancy. He recently participated in the PR Formos 2007 (pdf) conference in Vilnius, Lithuania to discuss ethical and “black” PR practices and published his speech on his blog. It lists a number of cases from Italy that could be described as black PR.

After the conference he blogged about some of the other findings.

An April 07 study of the business community in Lithuania about the role of black pr revealed that:
– 35% believe that all public relations agencies indulge in those practices and specifically 50% say that those practices are mostly used to gain direct advantages for their clients, while 47% say that they are used to smear their clients competitors.
– A good 33% of the sample say that they have been themselves victims of black pr and the same number believe that in Lithuania the practice is more widespread than elsewhere.
– Some optimism in the 32% who say the phenomena in decreasing while 28% insist that it is instead increasing.
– Finally 47% believe black pr is not a crime, 40% indicate that it is less serious than bribing a public official while 10% say it is the same.

Inga Latkovska, from Latvia, was quoted saying “that in her country it was easy to bribe the media”.

Yaryna Klyuchkovska, from Ukraine, estimated that “some 50% of the pr spent goes in those practices, without even considering political pr where it certainly much higher”.

Thorsten Lutzler of the DPRG, the German public relations association, said that black PR is also conducted in Western Europe and “that 54% of the German public believes that pr is propaganda”. He also stated that the DPRG had a new policy to go out in public and denounce every bad practice.

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