What Are Examples of Unethical Public Relations?


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What Are Examples of Unethical Public Relations?

To shed light on the darker side of public relations, we asked professionals from various industries to share examples of unethical PR campaigns they’ve encountered. From Walmart’s misleading blog campaign to H&M’s racially insensitive marketing efforts, here are nine examples of unethical public relations shared by CEOs, founders, and marketing managers.

  • False Local Awards: Unearned Fame
  • Walmart: Misleading Blog Campaign
  • Facebook: Cambridge Analytica Scandal
  • Kardashian-Jenner: FTC Violations
  • Tobacco Industry: Deceptive Ads
  • BP: Greenwashing Controversy
  • Johnson & Johnson: Tylenol Crises
  • Astroturfing: Manipulating Public Opinion
  • H&M’s Racially Insensitive Campaign

False Local Awards: Unearned Fame

I’m so exhausted by “awards” given to local businesses and leaders that are paid ads masquerading as achievements. I’ve worked in several places where I was constantly pushed to nominate people for awards that they weren’t worthy of to get them industry cred, media mentions, and shiny plaques.

I’ve seen new titles given out to elevate someone’s chance at winning, and I’ve been given false information to bulk up nominations. If you are in PR, I encourage you to stay away from these attempts at false fame and look for the real stories at your organization instead.

Lisha DunlapLisha Dunlap
PR Marketing Manager, Chandler Gilbert Community College

Walmart: Misleading Blog Campaign

Manipulating public opinion by spreading misinformation is a classic example of unethical public relations. One notable example is the case of “Walmarting Across America” in 2006.

Working with the public relations firm Edelman, Walmart launched a blog called “Walmarting Across America,” which claimed to be the journey of a couple, Jim and Laura, traveling across America in an RV and documenting their positive experiences at Walmart stores.

The blog appeared to be an organic account from satisfied customers, but it was later revealed that the couple was actually paid by Walmart, and the blog was orchestrated by Edelman.

Josh AmishavJosh Amishav
Founder and CEO, Breachsense

Facebook: Cambridge Analytica Scandal

The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal stands as a notable example of both a bad and unethical public relations event. In 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. This data was then used for targeted political advertising during elections, raising concerns about privacy violations and manipulation of user information.

Eventually, this had far-reaching consequences for Facebook. It led to investigations by regulatory bodies and resulted in hefty fines imposed on the company. It also sparked public outrage and a widespread call for stronger data protection regulations.

The incident served as a wake-up call for both Facebook and the broader tech industry, emphasizing the need for greater transparency, user control over data, and responsible handling of personal information.

Jonathan MerryJonathan Merry
Founder, Moneyzine

Kardashian-Jenner: FTC Violations

The Kardashian-Jenner family, known for their social media power, has come under fire for unethical product endorsements. They have violated Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements on multiple occasions by failing to sufficiently disclose their relationships with the products they promote.

By blurring the line between organic and paid material, these superstars mislead their fans, who frequently mistake their endorsements for genuine suggestions. Transparency undermines consumer trust and raises ethical questions about the integrity of both the influencers and the brands involved.

Cindi KellerCindi Keller
Communications Coordinator, The Criminal Defense Firm

Tobacco Industry: Deceptive Ads

One prominent instance I can recollect is the case of the tobacco industry’s campaigns in the mid-20th century. These companies promoted smoking as glamorous, sophisticated, and even healthy while disregarding and downplaying the severe health risks associated with smoking. This is seen as unethical due to the deception involved and the potential harm to public health.

Khamis MaioufKhamis Maiouf
CEO, Book of Barbering

BP: Greenwashing Controversy

In 2000, BP, a British multinational oil and gas firm, began a marketing effort called “Beyond Petroleum” to show that it cared about the environment and was willing to invest in other energy sources. However, this ad was chastised for being a textbook example of greenwashing.

BP continued to spend substantially on fossil fuels while only allocating a small fraction of its budget to renewable energy projects. BP exploited growing environmental concerns and attempted to improve its public image without making significant adjustments to its core business practices by misleading the public.

This technique eroded public trust, which was worsened by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which revealed a discrepancy between BP’s stated commitment and its real environmental impact.

Tim AllenTim Allen
Director, Oberheiden P.C.

Johnson & Johnson: Tylenol Crises

Johnson & Johnson faced a dilemma in 1982 when three people died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Rather than dismissing or rejecting the problem, the corporation swiftly accepted responsibility, issued a nationwide recall, and instituted tamper-proof packaging.

However, Johnson & Johnson suffered another issue in 2009 as a result of contaminated Tylenol products. This time, the company’s response was tardy, resulting in a tarnished reputation and a drop in consumer trust.

The brand’s credibility was harmed as a result of the crisis’s mishandling, underlining the significance of transparency, prompt response, and consistent crisis management tactics.

Tiffany HaflerTiffany Hafler
Marketing Coordinator, Blockchain Lawyer

Astroturfing: Manipulating Public Opinion

A breach of ethics in PR can take an unsettling turn when a facade of genuine public sentiment is meticulously crafted. This practice, known as “astroturfing,” entails using fake or manipulated voices to influence public opinion or shape public discourse.

Picture a scenario: a pharmaceutical behemoth is launching a new drug that has faced some skepticism. To counter the negative perception, the PR team orchestrates a symphony of preconceived comments, reviews, and articles. They create fake social media accounts, forum profiles, or blog authors, posing as independent individuals. Additionally, the PR machinery influences opinion leaders and provides them with compensation to publicly endorse the drug without disclosing their ties to the company.

Such tactics serve one overarching purpose: safeguard the company’s reputation and product while silencing the tide of dissent. Real-life examples include Samsung’s Astroturfing Campaign (2013) and Volkswagen Emissions Scandal (2015).

Nina PaczkaNina Paczka
Community Manager, Resume Now

H&M: Racially Insensitive Campaign

In 2018, H&M faced backlash for an online advertisement featuring a young black boy wearing a hoodie with the slogan “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” This campaign is considered a prime example of unethical public relations due to its racially insensitive nature and the negative impact it had on the brand.

Consumers erupted in outrage at H&M for what they deemed a highly inconsiderate move. It resulted in calls for boycotts, accusations of racism against the brand, and widespread criticism on social media platforms. People believed the ad revealed a lack of cultural competence and sparked doubts about the brand’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Associating a black child with a monkey was found deeply offensive, invoking historical racial stereotypes used to dehumanize people of African descent.

This situation proves that the ethical dimension of companies’ operations is becoming increasingly important for consumers today.

Agata SzczepanekAgata Szczepanek
Community Manager, MyPerfectResume

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