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Oppo research

Oppo resOpposition research is one of those sexxy-sounding hardball tactics politicians use and some corporate CEOs covet when they're under attack. The temptation to dip your toe into it is almost too hard to resist, particularly when your boss suggests it's what "the pros" all do.

Two exercises in opposition research within the same week of November 2014 demonstrate the dangers. In one, the Edelman public relations agency proposed to research a client’s opponents; in the other, a senior executive of the Uber car service proposed to research a reporter who had been critical of the company.

Edelman’s client had proposed to construct an oil pipeline across Canada. Greenpeace, which opposed the pipeline’s construction, somehow got its hands on a copy of Edelman’s public relations strategy, which called for developing “detailed background research on key opposition groups,” and posted it online. That prompted the New York Times to characterize the whole affair as an attempt “to spread any unflattering findings about the opposition.” 

Meanwhile, as reported by Buzzfeed, a senior Uber executive attending an industry dinner “outlined the notion of spending ‘a million dollars’ … to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company." The executive who made the suggestion later explained he thought he was speaking “off the record.” He said he “regretted [the remarks] and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.”

There is nothing unethical about analyzing what reporters have written to better understand what they think of your company and its industry. Nor is it wrong to track public details about a reporter’s life or information he or she is willing to share, such as a spouse’s name, children, alma mater, and hobbies. Such information can help build a stronger personal relationship with the reporter. But digging for embarrassing information is clearly unethical.

It is a violation of the reporter’s privacy. It muddies the waters of public discussion by casting irrelevant aspersions on the person reporting it. It's not responsible advocacy by any measure.

The key word here is “relevance” and that could be the safe harbor for Edelman.

If its background research was intended to reveal relevant information about the pipeline’s opponents, such as conflicts of interest or extreme positions they have taken in the past on similar projects, it could be ethical.

As Edelman’s own plan suggested, “To make an informed decision on this project, Canadians need to have a true picture of the motivations not only of the project proponents, but of its opponents as well.”

Ethical or not, the publicity embarrassed TransCanada and it parted ways with Edelman within a matter of weeks. The Uber executive was publicly rebuked by the company's CEO for remarks that "showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals." Thrown under the Uber or not, he's still with the company.



The politicization of PR

Democrats and RepublicansA story in today's Wall Street Journal lifted the veil on a disturbing trend -- some political operatives are bringing their bare knuckle tactics to the business world.

According to the Journal, for example, "America Rising, the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party, has launched a for-profit venture aimed at helping companies, trade associations and wealthy individuals push back against detractors and navigate sensitive shareholder or public-policy fights."

Its Democratic counterpart, American Bridge, says it isn’t looking to do private-sector work, but admitted to doing work for public policy allies like Planned Parenthood. One wonders if the next steps won't be trade associations, followed quickly by corporate lobbyists and then the rest of the C-suite.

As The Donald would say, "Not good."

CEOs have been enamored with the techniques of political campaigning ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, who was the most CEO-like politician to occupy the White House. But Reagan's communications techniques were relatively benign: message discipline, repetition, controlled appearances with dramatic backdrops, policy framed in homey anecdotes, etc.

Today's political operatives are decidedly more rough and tumble, whose stock in trade is compiling dossiers on opponents’ vulnerabilities and finding ways to exploit them without leaving fingerprints.

I can't do better than Tim Penning, a professor of public relations, who posted this in the Journal's comment section:

"... implicit in 'opposition research' is the underhanded use of ad hominem attacks on those with alternative views and agendas. It damages the civility of debate and robs the public of the ability to make genuinely informed decisions, which is the moral role of public relations in society. In the end, as negative practice becomes common, it will damage all companies' reputations."

To which I say, "Amen."