What is 'astroturfing' and why has it stoked debate within the PR industry?

On Thursday, the Guardian published a story in which it revealed that London firm, CTF Partners, used ‘astroturfing’ as a tactic to sway opinion on behalf of its clients, using Facebook to communicate what is essentially false information. Among its clients are numerous companies and individuals whom it would be kind to simply label ‘contentious’.

The practice of astroturfing isn’t new - the Guardian published an article back in 2012 highlighting the impact of new technology on an already shadowy practice. 

Back in 2011, Business Insider ran a piece looking at 10 grassroots movements started by big business to sway public opinion.

For the uninitiated, astroturfing involves the creation of content and conversation - in CTF’s case using ‘dark’ Facebook pages - to create the perception of grassroots support for a particular cause, or on a certain issue.

According to the Guardian, CTF Partners has used the practice for numerous clients, including Airbus. The airline confirmed they employed CTF to run lobbying campaigns in 2017 and 2018 in the wake of the grounding of its Super Puma helicopter amidst safety concerns following several fatal crashes. In response to the brief, CTF created an unbranded Facebook page and an accompanying news website entitled “Helicopter Newswire”. Its purpose was to spread positive news about the helicopter at a time when Unions were campaigning for stricter safety regulations. 

In the wake of the publication of the article, the great and good of the PR industry acted swiftly to condemn astroturfing, branding it “propaganda” with no place in the arena of either public relations or public affairs.

Industry bodies the CIPR and PRCA made clear their position on the practice - although whether CTF Partners is a member of either organisation is unclear. 

PR Week spoke to Interel Group managing partner and co-chair of the Public Affairs Board, George McGregor, who said the tactics are “a million miles from the professional public affairs industry in the UK, which operates with the highest ethical standards.”

And herein lies the issue - ethics.

There’s no doubt that the practice of astroturfing is unethical. 

Yet it isn’t illegal - and CTF Partners is unlikely to be the only firm engaging in the practice. Much like the phone hacking scandal, I think we can be certain that there are agencies still using astroturfing as a tool to achieve client objectives.

Such practices do nothing for the image of the PR industry, simply reinforcing age-old assumptions around spin and twisting of the truth. 

It certainly doesn’t reflect the future of the PR industry, either - but it does reinforce the need to hold all practitioners to the same standard, ethics included. 

The PRCA and CIPR require their members to adhere to a strict - and very clear - Code of Conduct, including operating in an ethical manner. However, outside of those organisations, those unwilling to commit to ethical practice are free to do as they please. 

Until the PR profession is regulated properly, with the industry adhering to the same standards and expectations, such practices will continue - there’s no shortage of clients who care little about the tactics used to achieve their objectives.

What we can be sure of is that CTF Partners isn’t the first to employ astroturfing - and it certainly won’t be the last.