PR agencies and privacy


I believe that — like Caesar’s wife — those who work in the public relations industry must be above suspicion when it comes to all online engagement (whether personal or professional.) Later on in this post, you’ll see how I’m hoping to use our social media policy to moderate our behaviour as a company, while freeing up our colleagues to experiment with social media. But I’m not expressing it well. What should I do?

Last summer I shared a draft of the Porter Novelli Social Media Policy that I’d been working on.

It’s one of those documents that some like and some don’t. A few people, for example, think that it’s too restrictive.

The sticking point for most people seems to be the bit that says (under 2.3.3):

Your profile must include an explicit statement that you work for Porter Novelli. Include the following minimum information: “I work for Porter Novelli, a global public relations company.”

For a couple of reasons, this item has popped up again. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that Porter Novelli people should disclose their full name and company affiliation in their Twitter bios, and referred to a post-and-comments on this blog that went some of the way to explaining why this should be. This tweet was picked up by a few people, some of whom commented. Willem (@hippowill, Ice cream for everyone!!) was probably the most eloquent, saying (among other things):

I’m not looking for work, but if I do I’m not interested in applying for Porter Novelli or any other agency that would feel the need to require my agreement to online guidelines, telling me how to talk, write and represent myself – and not the agency I work for – online.

So I’ve been meaning to get back to him, if nothing else. I feel that either I haven’t explained our policy properly, or he doesn’t get it — which amounts to the same thing. I don’t mind being wrong, but I do mind being misinterpreted. This stuff is important!

Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with some of our graduate prospects — young bright people who are looking to work for us. And it turned out that one of them, Anna Svensson (@svanna) had already written a post about it, asking Does your future employer have the right to control your online interaction?

In her response, Anna points out that (while she still feels that we’re “trying to control [our] employees a bit too much”) what we’re actually attempting to do is more “a form of issues management” (exactly!) It’s a good post, but it’s one of those that’s worth reading for the comment stream. I’d recommend you take a read.

But here, I think, is the big question:

Should a PR agency’s social media policy be different?

Different, I mean, from other companies’ policies? You see, I’d argue “Yes, they should.” I’m basing this on a lot of previous material. Wikipedia’s Conflict of Interest guidelines, for example, explicitly state that public relations is a “special case”:

Editing in the interests of public relations is particularly frowned upon. This includes, but is not limited to, edits made by public relations departments of corporations or governmental entities; or of other public or private for-profit or not-for-profit organizations; or by professional editors paid to edit a Wikipedia article with the sole intent of improving that organization’s image.

The italics are my own. Public relations (and social media relations) people are – I think – likely to be more distrusted than usual. Our errors will be held up to ridicule by our customers, and by our peers, and will live forever in the popular schadenfreude, achieving the mythical status of the fake blogging fiascos of 2007, or poor bloody Kryptonite/Bic Biro events of 2004 that still turn up in presentations and training workshops.

We’re also under more pressure to make mistakes. Between us, PR professionals around the world represent hundreds of thousands of clients, and several million campaigns every year. As the pressure increases in every region to take these campaigns online, mistakes will be made.


While I was writing this policy, I came across lots of policies from other organizations. Most of these were old-school “blogging policies” (Forrester’s Charlene Li posted a list ofBlogging Policy Examples back in 2004) and there’s a list at the NewPR Wiki.

We wanted to do something a bit different. As I state in the policy preamble, we wanted it to cover “Anything you do online where you share information that might affect your colleagues or clients.”

I’d done a bit of quick-and-dirty internal research when I joined Porter Novelli. At the time (and even today) the great majority of our colleagues weren’t bloggers. As a result, any “blogging policy” would be irrelevant to them. And yet, at the same time, a majority of our colleagues were on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Bebo, with some (mostly dormant) accounts on other social networking sites like Orkut, ASmallWorld, Hyves and the like depending on where they were coming from. A smaller number — while having no blog of their own — had commented on a blog or online news story, or posted in forums at least once in the past three months. Some of them were sharing photographs over services like Flickr, and (thankfully) a very few had — according to WikiScanner — anonymously edited Wikipedia (and, with one exception, always for non-client-related interests). Almost all had voted on something — even if it were only a poll — in the past quarter.

Some of these engagements were on behalf of clients, but the great majority were “personal business” — or as Willem might put it, representing themselves – and not the agency or clients for whom they worked.

The guiding principles for the policy

We were trying to keep things as simple as possible.

I rather like Comcast’s policy as quoted by Rohit Bhargava in his post Comcast’s Actual Social Media Policy No One Knew About:

Their official point of view is that their employees are allowed to participate authentically, as long as they disclose their affiliations, don’t divulge secret or proprietary information and don’t act as though they are an official spokesperson or allowed to speak on behalf of the brand.

That’s a lot better, I think than the often misquoted Microsoft “Be Smart” (taken out of context from a post from Robert Scoble” and a couple of often-quoted soundbites along the lines of “Our corporate policy is, be smart. We don’t talk about things we don’t know about.”)

Only the most arrogant would believe that “be smart” is suitable advice to include in a policy — instead it was a glimpse at the philosophy that underpinned the blogging policy that Microsoft were working on at the time. Scoble explicitly agreed with what Yahoo!’s Jeremy Zawodny says:

The only advice I have … is this: please make sure it’s abundantly clear what the rules are. You’re getting to be a big company. Don’t rely on unwritten rules or company tradition/culture to do the job.

So I was trying to keep it simple and flexible. Hence the guiding principles:

  1. The web is not anonymous. Assume that everything you write can be traced back to the company, if not you personally.
  2. There is no longer a clear boundary between your personal life and your work life.
  3. Do not lie or withhold the truth.
  4. The web contains a permanent record of our mistakes. But do not try to change things retrospectively.

Furthermore, I borrowed a philosophy from someone much wiser and smarter than I (and who was more fitted to our corporate culture than — say — Microsoft’s), Cluetrain Manifesto co-author David Weinberger who says:

All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don’t believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don’t know about. Put differently: All I’ll hide are the irrelevancies.

So what’s the thinking behind Paragraph 2.3.3 then?

Well — there are several.

1. We’re proud of the people we hire, and we hope they’re proud to work for us

One of the most satisfying ways we recruit is through WOM recommendation from our colleagues, who have let their friends how much they enjoy working with us.

Because we think that our people are the best advertisement for who we are and what we do, we’d like to see them promoting their personal brands as much as possible. We actively encourage people to begin blogging, set up networks on LinkedIn, get on Flickr, Twitter, and the like. We don’t actively monitor these accounts, but do

2. It prevents us from forgetting that there’s no “private” anymore

I think that a good PR person is someone who manages their relationships well; who can tread the fine line between doing good work for their clients without abusing or exploiting their relationships. Who recognizes the value of their personal network, and their personal brand.

When I’m doing background research on someone I’m meeting, I’ll check Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Who are they? Where have they worked? Who do we know in common?

Have you heard the story about photos of Bono and “bikini-clad babes” turning up on Facebook? Have you every searched for Carpphone Warehouse on Flickr?

PR people (who work with them on a daily basis) are already aware that these tools are also a great tool for journalists. So only someone very naive should think that there’s a divide that people will respect (“Oh — I won’t look at their Twitter or Facebook accounts because that’s personal, and I’m only interested them in a business context”)

By encouraging our colleagues to label their accounts with their place of work, we are also encouraging them to be aware that (even in their private lives) they may be seen to represent us.

3. It prevents us from accidentally forgetting to disclose

OK — everyone should disclose where appropriate. We know that. But in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget. It’s particularly easy to forget when you have only 140 characters to express yourself “I work for Porter Novelli, a public relations company that represents brand x” will take up more than 50% of your available space.

4. It prevents us from “accidentally” “forgetting” to disclose

Imagine that sentence being read out with heavy-handed sarcastic finger quotes.

There are all sorts of schoolboy errors that we won’t be tempted to make if everyone who works for us is clearly labelled “Porter Novelli.”

Working in the nineties at media planning and buying agencies and creative agencies leaves me with an abiding memory of being asked to “click on any of our banners that you see while you’re surfing.” These days, thank God, technology and good auditing has put paid to this kind of abuse.

This kind of astroturfing (the term we use for faking grass-roots support) is the kind of behaviour we have to prevent. Leaving comments on forums and blogs, voting on polls, ‘seeding’ UGC campaigns with content or sending apparently spontaneous branded ‘consumer’ messages via Twitter or Facebook is exactly the kind of thing that junior staffers will be asked to do by people who don’t get it. The fact that all our staffers are marked with the equivalent of a digital watermark prevents people from us as a company asking them to misuse their personal accounts.

I talked above about “personal networks” and “personal brands” — it’s essential that we as a company don’t ask people to exploit those; we want to hire people who have good networks. We want to help our colleagues develop those networks and brands. But while they work with us, we want them to use them on behalf of our clients. You can see how easy it would be unthinkingly to ask them to abuse them. By asking our colleagues to put the name of our employer on their accounts, I think we take a step towards preventing that.

This is a complicated idea — but one I hope that I’ve now explained better.

5. It prevents us from accidentally astroturfing again

Remember, Porter Novelli is a global organization. Different territories are at different stages of their digital market development. This is both an advantage (we can better forecast and plan for what future developments will look like in those markets) and a disadvantage (we may be condemned to repeat mistakes we — or our competitors — have made in more developed markets.)

Does this make it clearer?

To those, like Willem, who think that we’re being too strict I’d ask — does this make more sense? Do you still believe that there is “public and private?” Do you think that we’re simply doing this to advertise ourselves and control our employees, or do you think that we are doing it (as I suggested) to moderate our behaviour as a company, and freeing up our colleagues to experiment with social media?

What can I do to improve this? Now you know what we’re trying to do, all suggestions will really be welcomed.