One observation that is very clear about public relations these days is the need to be versed in online public relations, especially the various social media. One unique aspect of the social media is that the user creates and controls the content. Everyone can become a public communicator online with the social as the preferred delivery system. (Sometimes online communicators are called “citizen journalists” but that term suggests some sense of training and code of conduct that does not exist). The term authenticity is used frequently. Authenticity is the idea of being genuine, the message comes from the person creating it and represents her or his views. Transparency is related to authenticity in that transparency makes it clear who the author of the message and, ideally, if she or he has a particular interest in the message content. For instance, someone blogs favorably about product or organization. Is it useful to know if that individual works for the organization or has some other interest such as owning stock? One complaint about public relations is that it corrupted the traditional news media by manipulating the content of news stories. People see news stories thinking they were created by the news media when, in reality, the stories were crafted by public relations people. Well media relations is predicated on the notion of creating or influencing news content. This is not a secret conspiracy, you can learn this is any textbook that covers media relations.
A variation of this complaint extends to the online environment. There is a fear that media relations practices will be re-created online and we have messages in the social media crafted by public relations people, not the individuals posting the message. Or at least the public relations people are influencing the content of the social media posts. Public relations people do pitch stories to bloggers and send them media releases just like they do to traditional journalists. At this point you are probably wondering where the case is. Company called uSocial.net is buying Twitter followers. A quick Twitter review. Twitter is a microblogging site where messages can be only 140 long. People who Twitter can follow others. As a follower, you sign up and are send tweets from those you are following. Size of followership does matter. More follower is equal to more influence for the Twitterer. So buying Twitter followers seems to violate the intent of Twitter where followers organically emerge from this electronic marketplace of ideas.
Here is how uSocial.net describes itself:
“uSocial.net is the world’s premier advertising service, offering some of the most unique and fresh approaches to getting you traffic, attention and new clients. Here at uSocial, we like to do things differently. We believe that to get really powerful results, you have to think outside the box. It was this thinking that led us to create the world’s most prominent and talked about social bookmarking front-page service which got us a feature in the LA Times. This thinking also led us to create the world’s first and so-far only true unlimited press release disribution service where you can send any number of press releases to promote your business to our list of over 560,000 media contacts. And finally, this thinking enabled us to produce the cheapest and most cost-effective social-bookmarking submission service where you can submit and unlimited amount of links to over 170 social sites instantly and without hassle.” http://usocial.net/about/
Thought not is the about us section, uSocial.net does boast about its ability to buy Twitter followers. The service was covered by the Bulldog Reporter (a popular PR newsletter) in its Daily Dog on August 11, 2009. http://bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=2436B6EB9392483ABB0A373E8B823A24&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68&tier=4&id=BF50DDF81D0746058F4CF4E3B44A1D71
Another news story reported: “On Twitter you can go from literally no followers to 1,000 followers in a week using sites like uSocial.net, but it will cost you $87. If you need more than that, the site lets you buy up 100,000 followers in a year for just under $3,500. On their website, uSocial.net says: ‘The more followers you have, the more money you will inevitably make marketing your products and services to them.’” http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=172&sid=7081655
uSocial.net luckily calls itself an advertising firm sparing public relations some of the flack generated by paying for Twitter followers. But their heavy use of publicity tactics makes them appear to be a public relations firm and has already brought public relations into the discussion of paying for Twitter followers. The continuing new applications of online communication keeps pushing the boundaries of ethics and proves the need to discuss the ethical implications of public communication actions.
Questions to Consider
1. What are the ethical issues for organization’s that buy Twitter followers?
2. What are the ethical issues for people who sell their Tweets (Chapter 3)?
3. What role can transparency and authenticity play in keeping social media communicators honest and ethical?
4. How might uSocial.net’s actions create problems for the reputation of public relations as a field (Chapter 2)?
5. How might buying Twitter followers help an organization?
6. How might bought Twitter followers differ from naturally occurring Twitter followers? What the implications of those difference for public relations?
7. What are the advantages and disadvantages of treating social media like the traditional news media (Chapters 6 & 7)?
8. Do you thing that “citizen journalist” is a good term for social media users? Why or why not?