Disinformation and Public Relations. Approach to the terms Black PR and Dark PR

Leticia Rodríguez Fernández

Disinformation and Public Relations. Approach to the terms Black PR and Dark PR

ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes, vol. 21, no. 1, 2023

Asociación científica ICONO 14

Desinformación y relaciones públicas. Aproximación a los términos Black PR y Dark PR

Desinformação e relações públicas. Uma abordagem aos termos Black PR e Dark PR

Leticia Rodríguez Fernández *

Universidad de Cádiz, Spain

Received: 21/july /2022

Revised: 01/october /2022

Accepted: 18/december /2022

Published: 26/january /2023

Abstract: Disinformation has reached a high degree of professionalization in recent years. Dark PR or Black PR campaigns are an advanced level of negative campaigns and they fictionalize prescription and influence, usually with the aim of discrediting the political adversary or competitor.

This paper proposes a systematic review of the search results of the terms Black PR and Dark PR in Google and Google Scholar. The aim is to identify the definitions and origins of both terms, to know the strategies used in these works and as well as the case studies that serve to exemplify them. It is observed that both terms are still very new and are used more by the media than by the academic literature, although they have common definitions and uses. A growing trend of negative influence practices is reported with numerous examples of astroturfing, disinformation campaigns and corporate censorship in different countries. This circumstance is problematic for the public relations sector as it differs from the ethical principles of the profession and forces those who practice it to engage in dishonest practices.

Keywords: public relations; disinformation; digital propaganda; Black PR; Dark PR; fake news.

Resumen: La desinformación ha alcanzado en los últimos años un alto grado de profesionalización. Las campañas de Dark PR o Black PR son un nivel avanzado de las campañas negativas y en ellas se ficciona la prescripción y la influencia, normalmente con ánimo de desprestigiar al adversario político o el competidor.

Se propone en este trabajo una revisión sistemática sobre los resultados de búsqueda de los términos Black PR y Dark PR en Google y Google Scholar. Se pretende identificar en las definiciones y orígenes de ambos conceptos, conocer las estrategias utilizadas en estos trabajos, así como los casos de estudio que sirven para ejemplificar los mismos. Se observa que ambos conceptos son aún muy novedosos y son más empleados por medios de comunicación que por la literatura académica, aunque presentan definiciones y usos comunes. Se recoge una tendencia creciente de prácticas de influencia negativa con numerosos ejemplos de astroturfing, campañas de desinformación y censura corporativa en distintos países. Esta circunstancia resulta problemática para el sector de las relaciones públicas pues difiere de los principios éticos de la profesión y obliga a quienes la ejercen a participar en prácticas poco honestas.

Palabras clave: relaciones públicas; desinformación; propaganda digital; Black PR; Dark PR; fake news.

Resumo: A desinformação tornou-se altamente profissionalizada nos últimos anos. As campanhas de relações públicas negras ou negras são um nível avançado de campanha negativa e ficcionam a prescrição e influência, geralmente com o objectivo de desacreditar o adversário político ou concorrente.

Este documento propõe uma revisão sistemática dos resultados da pesquisa dos termos Black PR e Dark PR no Google e no Google Scholar. O objectivo é identificar as definições e origens de ambos os termos, as estratégias utilizadas nestes trabalhos, bem como os estudos de caso que servem para os exemplificar. Observa-se que ambos os termos são ainda muito novos e são mais utilizados pelos meios de comunicação social do que pela literatura académica, embora tenham definições e utilizações comuns. É relatada uma tendência crescente de práticas de influência negativa, com numerosos exemplos de astroturfismo, campanhas de desinformação e censura empresarial em diferentes países. Isto é problemático para a indústria de RP, uma vez que diverge dos princípios éticos da profissão e força os profissionais a envolverem-se em práticas desonestas.

Palavras-chave: relações públicas; desinformação; propaganda digital; Black PR; Dark PR; notícias falsas.

1. Introduction

Disinformation is an effective way of influencing public opinion and running covert PR campaigns. The fourth wave of digital democracy is defined by the use of artificial intelligence and big data. Its milestones include the validation of lies as a political strategy (fake news and deepfakes), the merging of hyperlocal and supranational elements, as well as the use of trends that pose a risk to democracy (polarisation, astroturfing, eco-chambers, and bubble filters) (García-Orosa, 2021).

The effectiveness and impact of these informational disruptions have been widely studied and ratified in international electoral processes (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017; Greene et al., 2021; Ribeiro, 2018). These actions were characterised by similar strategies and a widespread use of algorithmic communication by political parties (Campos and García-Orosa, 2018).

This shows how disinformation is used to influence political opponents and competitors. The end goal is to ensure that the issuing party benefits, and therefore, the services of a third party are enlisted to safeguard its identity and evade association with dishonest practices.

1.1 Disinformation and public relations

The relationship between public relations and disinformation has received minimal scholarly attention. As Castillo (2009) points out, public relations as persuasive communication has, to a greater or lesser extent, direct links with other disciplines, such as advertising and propaganda. In the case of disinformation, however, "the relationship should be one of nullity, i.e. the ethical component of public relations precludes engaging in communicative activities founded on disinformation" (p.21).

This incompatibility is also evident in the sector's ethical guidelines. The Declaration of Helsinki comprises 10 principles, including a specific reference to honesty and the rejection of the use of astroturfing or fake news (International Communications Consultancy Organisations, 2014).

The fact is that disinformation is indeed perceived to be a risk by public relations professionals. In the United States, Jahng et al. (2020) reported a significant difference in how communication professionals (n=206) viewed the issue. To journalists, it is an attempt to mislead the audience using false information. However, public relations experts associate it with strategy management, by assessing its impact on reputational objectives. This highlights the need for these professionals to familiarize themselves with specialized verification tools and web pages.

Reid (2017) points out that, although corporate disinformation is most often politically related, companies can also be targeted for financial (manipulation of stock prices)or emotional (dislike of the brand or company leadership) reasons, as well as by disgruntled employees. It has been found that the posting of just 50 negative comments is sufficient to outperform any competitor in terms of visibility (Lappas et al, 2016).

Therefore, companies can become targets of disinformation campaigns, but also potential disseminators, by trying to damage their competitors or by disseminating distorted discourses that benefit their interests (Olivares-Delgado et al., 2023; López, 2023). Dishman and Philip specify that "the use of disinformation is not just the application of dishonesty within corporate communications. It is the strategic use of falsehood with the intent to deceive and anticipate benefits" (1999, p. 26).

In a similar vein, Edwards (2020) views disinformation as a public relations tool and blames the sector for the current crisis. It would thus be a new threat to be protected by public relations. The producers of disinformation would represent the 'other', providing a contrast to demonstrate ethics and integrity. Ultimately, this juncture would enable the industry to open up new lines of work and defend its interests.

Another relevant area of research is therefore the possible solutions that could be implemented by organisations. Castellani and Berton (2017) report the use of defense strategies, such as communication campaigns aimed at informing stakeholders. In this regard, Boman and Schneider (2021) point out that the most effective technique is the anticipation and simultaneous publication of a rebuttal (pre-bunking). Chen and Cheng (2020) argue that there is a need for work that goes beyond corporate communications by developing initiatives within corporate social responsibility that contribute to media literacy. This is a proposal that could potentially benefit both the brand itself and society in general.

In Spain, the impact on the reputation of organisations has been studied through the analysis of verifications, concluding that institutions are the most affected, followed by companies and political parties (Rodríguez-Fernández, 2019a). Similarly, the communication strategies used by companies in the food sector to manage image crises caused by the dissemination of disinformation have been addressed (Martín-Herrera and Micaletto, 2021) and attempts have been made to explore how disinformation is transforming crisis communication (Mut-Camacho and Rueda-Lozado, 2022).

In addition, there is research to understand the changes that disinformation has generated in the everyday practices of communication professionals and to collect case studies (Rodríguez- Fernández; 2019b and 2021).

1.2 The professionalisation of disinformation

It is difficult to establish a history of the professionalisation of computational propaganda. In 2010, the first fake news around the Massachusetts election process was documented (Waldrop, 2017). A year later, in 2011, Facebook admitted to hiring a PR agency to spread rumours through the media and bloggers about the product of its competitor, Google+. The agency solicited negative articles and shared malicious information with prescribers who discreetly questioned the company's privacy policy (Maraboto, 2015).

In 2013, the Chinese government announced its intention to abolish this type of company, so it can be assumed that there was already sufficient activity in the country (The Guardian, 2013). However, it was only in 2017, thanks to the revelations of former employees, that we were given a greater insight into their activities and tactics. On the one hand, Christopher Wylie revealed the practices used by Cambridge Analytica from 2014 (Wylie, 2021), and Lyudmila Savchuk and Mark Bukard will provided about the Russian-dominated Internet Research Agency.

In Mexico, around the same time, Carlos Merlo launched Victory Lab, one of the first companies to publicly acknowledge its true activities. Merlo claimed to be using 10 million bots (Rincón, 2017).

Also in 2017, in the UK, the Public Relations and Communication Association (PCRA) reported on a disinformation operation carried out by the prestigious public relations firm Bell Pottinger. The case had a huge media impact since it was a highly respected agency, founded by one of Margaret Thatcher's advisors. The agency had been hired by Oakbay Investments, a company owned by the Gupta family, which was close to the then South African president Jacob Zuma. Opponents of the family and the president were subjected to a disinformation and smear campaign that portrayed them as agents of the 'white capitalist monopoly' (Keaveney, 2017). The work turned out to be an agitprop campaign whose narrative stoked racial tensions in the country. Wikipedia also reported a user associated with the agency for manipulating content on its site to benefit clients (Lee, 2012).

At the same time, the North American consulting firm FTI began working for several oil companies on an influence campaign that increased public support for fracking. This involved the creation of several websites and the digital monitoring of both activists and other influence campaigns to gather strategies for influencing public discourse. In total, the consulting firm was involved in at least 15 projects whose ultimate goal was to reverse the scale of values and motivate public support for the industry (Tabuchi, 2020).

More recent data shows that the professionalisation of negative influence is already well established. According to the report Industrialized Disinformation 2020 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation (Bradshaw et al., 2021), the use of computer-generated propaganda was detected in 81 countries in the year under review, and the mediation of a specialised firm was observed in 48 countries. Since 2009, more than 65 companies offering computational propaganda services have been identified, representing a total investment of $60 million.

We can therefore observe (1) the emergence and consolidation of new companies specialising in negative influence and disinformation, and (2) the use of similar practices by more traditional communication agencies. It is also worth asking whether this new scenario encourages the involvement of a third agent: (3) fake PR agencies, which serve to anonymise the real promoters. For example, French influencers denounced the hiring of the Fazze agency to discredit the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer. In the end, the company did not exist and its alleged employees were traced back to Russia (Alderman, 2021).

2. Methodology

This paper aims to explore the terms Black PR and Dark PR, both of which are commonly used to define planned and professional disinformation campaigns. These terms are often used in the media, but we do not know if they are established concepts and if there is academic research on them. A systematic literature review (SLR) is proposed, in accordance with the model put forward by Kitchenham (2004).

The research questions are as follows:

  1. Q.1. What is the origin of the terms Black PR and Dark PR and how are they defined? Are there differences between them?

  2. Q.2 What practices are associated with these terms?

  3. Q.3 Is there a representative sample of cases that exemplify these practices?

  4. Q.4 Are these practices used by the media and content creators to a greater extent? Do they feature in academic literature?

  5. Q.5 Are measures being taken to neutralise disinformation from corporate/institutional communications?

Both the terms Black PR and Dark PR were used as keywords for this review, always in quotation marks. The first search was carried out via Google, since it is used by 92% of the world's population, compared with 3.2% for Bing, the second most used search engine, or 1.43% for Yahoo, which ranks third (Statista; 2022). Thirteen pages of results were obtained for both terms, with 129 indexed entries for the term Black PR and 115 for Dark PR.

The second search string was performed in Google Scholar, a search engine that specialises in academic results and uses different algorithms from Google. It is estimated that 75% of researchers begin their research in Google before moving on to Google Scholar, online catalogues, databases, and Wikipedia (Inarquia, 2015).

Therefore, both search engines represent windows of great value at the academic level and will allow us to identify the corresponding differences in terms of use by the media and content creators and use in the scientific literature. In this case, the search was limited to the first 10 pages, i.e. the first 100 results collected for each term. Academic search engines such as WOS, Scopus, or Academia were therefore excluded, as no results were obtained in related searches or these had already been collected in the study sample with Google Scholar.

The aforementioned searches and the extraction of information were carried out between 13 and 17 April 2022. In total, 244 entries were obtained for Google searches and 200 in Google Scholar, selecting for analysis the information related to the purpose of study. Content that was not directly related to disinformation and public relations was therefore discarded. The extraction of information and the subsequent analysis was carried out manually and entered into an Excel file for subsequent categorisation.

The articles studied were classified according to the year of publication, the medium in which they were published (media, blog, other for Google searches), language, and country; in the case of academic results, the authorship was also added to identify their affiliation (see annexes [https://zenodo.org/record/7457068#.Y6A4uXbMK3A]). It should be noted that an exact search period has not been defined or delimited since the aim is to determine when content has been indexed with both terms and the evolution of their use.

On the other hand, books and academic publications indexed in Google were also included in the analysis of academic content, as shown in the appendices, excluding only the self-published Darkness Public Relations and Secret Power: Reveals the 5 Supreme Arts of Influencing the Behaviour of the Crowd.

Having classified the entries collected in the systematic literature review (see appendices [https://zenodo.org/record/7457068#.Y6A4uXbMK3A]), we ultimately proceeded to analyse them to answer the research questions previously posed.

3. Results

3.1 Black PR and Dark PR terms in Google and Google Scholar

Black PR appears in 13 pages of results in Google with a total of 129 indexed entries, including a communications agency of the same name and several entries related to the racial visibility of professionals in the sector.

Eleven entries (8.5%) in English are identified that directly allude to the proposed field of public relations and negative influence. Six come from mass media and five from blogs. In terms of countries of origin, four are from the United States (US), two from the UK, one from China, one from Singapore, and one from Ukraine.

In the case of the term Dark PR, 13 pages of results were also collected in Google, with a total of 115 indexed entries, of which 29 allude to the purpose of the study. Thus, 25.21% of these results are directly related to negative influence and public relations, suggesting that this term is somehow more widely used than Black PR.

All the content identified is in English and was published in blogs (14) and mass media (12). We also found one YouTube video, one item of Slideshare content, and another on Medium. In terms of countries of origin, most of the content comes from the USA (8), the UK (5), Germany (4), South Africa (2), and India (2), with content also coming from the Netherlands (1), France (1), China (1), Australia (1), Singapore (1), Zimbabwe (1) and Ghana (1).

For Google Scholar, the number of directly related results is even lower. Black PR brings up 9 results, of which three are journal articles, three are conference papers, two are books and one is a dissertation. The hegemonic language is English (6), although there are some publications in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish. In terms of authors' affiliations, two belong to Ukrainian universities, and the rest, with a single result respectively, come from institutions in Georgia, Romania, Russia, Poland, the USA, and the UK.

In the case of Dark PR, 11 results were obtained via Google Scholar, of which seven are articles in scientific journals. The rest comprise a book, a conference publication, a review, and a research report. The hegemonic language is English (9), with two publications in Ukrainian and one in Polish. In terms of the affiliation of the researchers, two are from Polish universities, two are from the UK, and two are from Russia. There is also one publication from a university in Belarus, one in Moldova, one in Canada, one in Australia, and one in the USA.

The volume of content collected for each term and search
Figure 1
The volume of content collected for each term and search

Source: own elaboration

It is worth noting, as can be seen in Figure 1, that most of the results were published between 2018 and 2021, with 2020 being the year with the highest number of publications overall. This suggests that both concepts are relatively new and have been used in the last two years. The oldest indexed publication is the book Global Public Relations: Spanning Borders, Spanning Cultures, published in 2008, which includes a description of Black PR tactics.

3.2 Origins and definitions attributed to Black PR and Dark PR

There are a few differences in the definitions offered for Black PR and Dark PR (DPR), which are very similar across media, blog content and academic literature.

It is stated that in Russia, as well as the Ukraine and Poland, the term Black PR became part of the PR vocabulary in the 1990s, contributing to a negative image of the profession. The term "the Russian practice" was even coined as a synonym (The Guardian; 2020).

In Russia, it describes political campaigns created during election periods to damage the image of opponents or political rivals (Freitag and Quesinberry, 2008). The authors, citing Ponidelko and Lukashev (2001), point out that they use deception and lies to damage the campaigns of other candidates. They also point out that the term is sometimes used to describe propaganda or unethical practices, and that some American academics deny its existence.

Dark PR, on the other hand, seems to be more closely related to business activities and is used to describe professional activities of negative influence against competitors. Its development uses disinformation (fake news), espionage, lawsuits, fake accounts, fake narratives, fake reviews, and pseudo-news websites. It should be noted that specialized DPR companies have been on the rise since 2011 (Thompson and Weldon, 2022), a date also used by the media outlet Buzzfeed in its analyses. The latter refers to at least 27 online information operations partially or fully attributed to public relations or marketing companies, collecting 19 of these campaigns in 2019 alone. Only in one piece of content do both terms appear as synonyms.

3.3 Types of related practices

Few categorisations or descriptions of linked practices are observed. Among the academic works, there are only two valuable contributions with numerous linked tactics. Ledeneva (2006) refers to these as "informal practices", which would include illegal actions such as manipulating results at polling stations, cutting off local television broadcasts to block opponents' campaigning, or organising violent street rallies attributed to opponents. Informal practices" would also include legal actions such as dvoiniki (double candidates), which consists of registering two candidates with the same or similar names to confuse voters on election day (2006).

Three types of ethical publicity are thus revealed: white when it is legal and ethical; grey, when it is an illegal and ethical practice or unethical but legal; and black publicity when it is neither ethical nor legal.

Kobalava (2021) points out that among the methods of Black PR, both political and business would highlight: (1) Market diversification by the company; (2) Providing prospects for expanding market boundaries; (3) Ensuring market security; (4) Fighting for competition; (5) Fighting to drive competitors out of the market; (6) Destroying a competitor's business; (7) Reducing competitors' business connections; (8) Weakening competitors' positions in consumer or commercial markets; (9) Political objectives; (10) Lobbying; (11) Targeting specific individuals for disclosure of undesirable information; (12) Modeling the information obtained and using extortion elements to defeat a competitor; (13) Using trolls, bots and other media focused on unreal facts;(14) Neutralising the negative-minded population or organization; (15) Pursuing the goals of opposition groups and achieving the desired result; (16) Conducting a black PR campaign for oneself and self-promotion; (17) Developing the right opinion for a black PR company through video streaming and webcasting.

Although the media and blogs offer many examples of real cases, hardly any practices other than those described above are reported. As a novelty, the concept of "surkism", named after Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov, is described as a definition "a new genre of communication that combines elements of branding, media and art theory, and postmodernism into a highly weaponized form of influence" (Ubermetrics, 2018).

Another related foreign word would be the Russian term kompromat, which gives its name compromised information designed to inflate reputations and, in the corporate sphere, refers to information published under the guise of journalism. This information can never be verified and provides no evidence.

A more established technique in the U.S. market, ratfucking, is defined as the use of dirty tricks to undermine and discredit political opponents. It also alludes to the US National Security Agency's use of techniques to alter search results on specific individuals. These would have been outlined in its manual, Disruption: Operational Playbook.

3.4 Cases that exemplify Black PR and Dark PR practices

Throughout the analysis carried out, a significant number of cases have been identified throughout the world that illustrates the practices described above. Since there are practically no differences between the two concepts, they are presented together, organised by continent (Africa, America, Asia, and Europe). It should be noted that this selection does not include examples of practices in Latin America.

3.4.1 Cases collected on the African continent

In Africa, only cases related to political communication are reported. In Nigeria, and for the 2019 presidential elections, the Israeli company Archimedes was responsible for the trolling campaign Make Nigeria worse again. The target of the campaign was the former vice president of Nigeria, the opponent of Muhammadu Buhari, who was re-elected president of the country. The company also allegedly worked on the elections in Mali, setting up a fake fact-checking site that claimed to be run by local students. Using the same strategy in Tunisia, they reportedly created the page Stop à la Désinformation et aux Mensonges ("Stop the Disinformation and the Lies").

Example of the Stop à la Désinformation et aux Mensonges campaign
Image 1
Example of the Stop à la Désinformation et aux Mensonges campaign

Source: Ready Set News

An article published on Medium by an anonymous user alludes to PRA campaigns carried out in sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and South Africa. The companies mentioned are foreign multinationals such as Archimedes Group, Bell Pottinger, Smaat, and DotDev, and the work would have been commissioned by hostile countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

3.4.2 Cases collected in the Americas

On the continent of the Americas, there are only two examples: one corporate and one political. In late 2018, Nike was hit by a digital boycott after announcing the launch of an ad campaign starring former NFL player turned social activist Colin Kaepernick. Its stock price fell 3.2% the day after the campaign debuted.

In terms of political communication, in Puerto Rico, several journalists revealed the connection, through a Telegram group of former governor Ricardo Rosselló, with a consultant of the marketing firm KOI, which directed campaigns in social networks to promote messages in favor of the government and attack rivals. As a result of these revelations, Rosselló resigned.

3.4.3 Cases collected on the Asian continent

China is the country with the most collected examples. In 2012, three employees of Baidu (a Chinese search engine) were arrested on suspicion of accepting payments in exchange for removing posts from online forums (Custer; 2012). This tactic seems to have been offered at similar times by Chinese companies dedicated to removing content from the web. We would thus find a new kind of censorship: corporate censorship, exercised by the corporate power of digital media, which would make it possible to hide from users' searches information that potentially impacts their interests.

One year later, two relevant milestones occurred: (1) the Chinese government's attempt to shut down some of the agencies dedicated to these practices, and (2) the public disclosure of an astroturfing campaign promoted by Samsung in Taiwan to influence its competitor HTC (The Guardian, 2013).

In the same year and at a local level, Coca-Cola was hit by false information claiming that its Minute Maid product contained a harmful pesticide. The company denied the accusation (Doland, 2013). Similarly, the manufacturer of the noodles, Master Kong, was the subject of numerous accusations on microblogs claiming that the company was actually of Japanese origin. These criticisms came during a political conflict: China's territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. However, there was some truth in this information. However, it was exaggerated to influence the company, since the second largest stake in the company belonged to a Japanese group.

In 2014, there was a public confrontation between the two tech giants: Tencent accused Alibaba of placing negative articles on websites to tarnish its image. In response, Alibaba made the same accusation about Tencent. Neither company denied being involved in smear campaigns, a practice that, as gathered in the theoretical framework, seems to be widespread in this country as well (Yu, 2014).

Also in the Asian market, in this case in Taiwan, is the story of the company Bravo Idea. Its owner, Peng Kuan Chin, openly talks about its "Content Farm Automatic Collection System" model, which is based on the use of its content pages, fake accounts, and manipulated content both in news feeds and in news and search results in favor of its clients.

Meanwhile, in India, BellTrox InfoTech Services helped its clients spy on more than 10,000 competitors’ emails over the course of seven years. The company was hired by many top U.S. and European companies.

In the Philippines, one of the most developed markets for the disinformation industry, Facebook dismantled Twinmark Media Enterprises, which was linked to Nic Gabunada, the social media director of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's 2016 campaign.

For its part, Buzzfeed describes an operation carried out on Twitter by the marketing company Smaat in favor of the government of Saudi Arabia and another with similar objectives in favor of the government of Georgia, developed by the advertising agency Panda.

3.4.4 Cases collected on the European continent

In Russia, the magazine Russia! published a guide to the main DPR techniques used to target TogliattiAzot (TOAZ), one of the world's largest ammonia producers. The campaign, exposed by several anonymous hacktivists, became a scandal in the country. They used(1) insinuations of unpatriotic spendings, such as the purchase of football clubs and historic hotels in Western Europe; (2) the projection of a bad image of the main shareholders; or (3) accusations of alleged environmental damage. Uralchem, a competing company, would have been its promoter (GlobeNewswire, 2014).

The actions of negative influence also apply to dissident subjects such as the Bitkov family, owners of the North-West Timber Company in St. Petersburg. Open enemies of Putin, they sought refuge in Guatemala, exposing themselves to an intense disinformation campaign on social media. The family was imprisoned in that country in 2018 (Colson, 2021).

Add to this the case of the British retail bank NatWest, which closed the account of Bill Browder, a well-known critic of Kremlin corruption, after being intimidated by negative influence operations.

In Ukraine, there was the case of the public relations firm, Pragmatico, which employed dozens of young people to generate positive comments about its clients on fake Facebook accounts. Similarly in Poland Cat@Net, which managed networks of fake Twitter accounts run by disabled workers hired by the company to receive government subsidies. Although it claimed to be a public relations agency, it was merely a troll farm.

There are fewer case studies in the business world. For example, according to the DumLittleMan website, in 2012 the foreign exchange trading company Broco was forced to completely reduce its activities after rumors about the high risk of investments circulated on the network.

In Georgia, TBC Bank was accused of money laundering, and from within the organization itself it was suggested that it was being targeted by a DPR campaign (Ernst, 2019).

Huawei also commissioned a commercial lawyer to write an article against the Belgian government's policies affecting the company. It later virtualised the content using fake Twitter accounts of supposed writers, technology experts, and academics and then added the distribution of members of the company (Infobae, 2021).

3.5 Practices for a fight against disinformation from the public relations

Although there are many examples of the professionalisation of disinformation and its impact on business and political communication, there are few proposals to combat or neutralise it from a public relations point of view.

The Public Relations Research Laboratory (PRLab) suggests that to quickly defend against these attacks, companies should focus on three key areas: (1) attribution: identifying the issuing source, although it is noted that this point is complex as they are often international actors; (2) motivation: trying to understand the why and the objective; and (3) response: providing facts and truth, holding press conferences, creating websites to counter disinformation or publicly disclosing who is behind the disinformation itself.

The PRLab: Student-run Public Relations Agency (College of Communication) explains that it is not necessary to have a license to practice the profession and that it would be a challenge to create such regulations. It is revealed that it is the professionals themselves and their associations that should work "overtime" to disseminate and raise awareness about DPR practices.

Only one other article, published by Ubermetrics, cites professional associations, mentioning the 16 principles for public relations practice developed by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.

From the influence and lobbying approach, Andrew Foxall suggests in the report on Russia "Black PR: Examining the Practice of Ruining Reputations”, the implementation of measures such as the introduction of a US-style foreign agent registration law in the UK. This would require lobbying and PR firms to be transparent about their foreign clients and the work they do for them in the country. There are also calls for the International Communications Consultancy Organisation to adopt documented Black PR guidelines and definitions.

4. Discussion and conclusions

Throughout this paper, the professionalisation of disinformation and its possible relationship with the PR sector has been addressed. First and foremost, it is worth highlighting the novelty of the terms Black PR and Dark PR, on which the majority of publications between 2018 and 2020 are concentrated. While the first documented case studies date back to 2011 and the first indexed terminological definitions appeared in 2008.

In the absence of a theoretical corpus in Spanish on the subject, it is noted that both concepts are used interchangeably to refer to negative influence campaigns that seek to affect the reputation of a competitor or political opponent. Both are associated with the Russian government's disinformation and smear practices of the 1990s, which have now been extended to the business and corporate spheres. However, it seems that Black PR is often used to describe these actions, while Dark PR appears later and includes additional aspects of the digital sphere. It is possible that this new name was born out of a need to bring together more techniques and distance itself from new connotations since Black PR is also used by African-American professionals seeking to give visibility to their work in the United States.

The term Dark PR is more widely used than Black PR. The media and content creators seem to be more interested in this concept than the Academy. The origin of this would be in the US, UK, and Germany. In the case of academic literature, although researchers also tend to write in English, their affiliation is traced back to Russia, Poland, USA, and the UK in most cases.

There are no marked differences between the examples collected under the two terms. Although there are examples from all over the world, there is a greater frequency of practices carried out on the Asian continent. In this regard, it should be noted that no examples of cases in Latin American countries were included in the sample analysed herein.

Some recommendations or advice are offered to combat this type of campaign, although they seem insufficient given the impact of negative influence. Although we are dealing with minority professions, their presence is already a threat to those who respect ethical codes and abide by honest practices.

On the other hand, in addition to the application of astroturfing and disinformation, a new model of corporate censorship is being collected and exercised by the corporate power in digital media, which would allow hiding in users' searches the information that affects their interests.

It should be noted that this work has limited its analysis to content indexed in Google and Google Scholar, so that future research could extend the study to results obtained in academic search engines. However, as indicated in the methodology, this study aimed to compare the use by the media, content creators, and academics.

Finally, a reflection on the future of the profession in the coming years is in order, as disinformation and digital propaganda are here to stay and are clear predators of the ethical and professional practice of public relations.


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Author notes

* Assistant Professor of the Department of Marketing and Communication

Additional information

Translation to English : Translinguo Creative Group, S.L.

To cite this article : Rodríguez Fernández, Leticia. (2023). Disinformation and Public Relations. Approach to the terms Black PR and Dark PR. ICONO 14. Scientific Journal of Communication and Emerging Technologies, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.7195/ri14.v21i1.1920

Cómo citar
ISO 690-2
ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes

ISSN: 1697-8293

Vol. 21

Num. 1

Año. 2023

Disinformation and Public Relations. Approach to the terms Black PR and Dark PR

Leticia Rodríguez Fernández 1