How PR Firms Promote False Credibility

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Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig recently called out “marketing services specialist” Clint Arthur for selling speaking opportunities at the Harvard Faculty Club and the West Point Club, as a means for his paying clients to leverage the credibility associated with those two respected institutions.

As Zweig’s article points out, however, the schools neither sponsored those events, nor endorsed the program in any way. Apparently, Zweig’s article hasn’t deterred Mr. Arthur from hijacking brand endorsements, as he continues to promote this service (and many others) on his LinkedIn profile and his websites, including the “Status Factory.”

Clint Arthur may represent the extreme end of PR hucksterism, but for decades many well-known public relations firms have sold other types of false or inflated credibility that relies on the implied third-party endorsement of respected media sources and organizations. (In some cases, those respected brands are complicit in selling their brand stature.)

Here’s one example of how the credibility game is played:

At considerable expense, a PR firm will earn their client a spot as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on a respected journalist’s list of sources, which may eventually yield a relevant quote in a published story. Although that story will often contain quotes from other SMEs, including the client’s competitors – making the coverage useless from a sales and marketing perspective – the PR firm will hype this “earned media placement” in several ways, including:

  • A press release announcing that the client has been FEATURED in ForbesFortuneCNBC, the Wall Street Journal, etc.;
  • Social media postings on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook referencing the publicity;
  • A permanent “As seen in (name of media source)” banner on the home page of the client’s website;
  • Surgical removal of the client’s quote from the story, coupled with the publication’s logo, hung like a hunting trophy in the client website’s News section.

All of these tactics are intended to suggest that the client is a safe choice, simply because they’ve been mentioned in a respected media source. And all of these tactics overplay their hand, with respect to the public’s trust in legitimate media.

There are certainly many PR firms that help clients to generate earned media coverage based on bona fide thought leadership and subject matter expertise. High quality content is entitled to the full measure of direct and indirect promotion, to ensure that a client’s intellectual capital (as well as its media “endorsements”) are known to target audiences.

Where the PR industry has fallen short, however, and where the offending “media shops” continue to damage the reputation of the profession (with clients and journalists), is the attempt to claim credibility when it has not really been earned. In that regard, they deserve no more respect than that given to Clint Arthur.

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