In 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) learned that staging fake news conferences, complete with fake reports, was a bad idea. While the tactic defied common sense, spin remains alive and well in some public relations circles.
Netflix Inc. hired actors to pose as fans in Toronto, including stereotypical roles such as "mothers, film buffs, tech geeks, couch potatoes." The gimmick, according to Netflix, was to use the actors to gin up enthusiasm and attract a crowd.
Misleading the public was bad enough, but the Netflix actors began to offer up even more excitement by accepting media interviews. The gimmick was undone after reporters noticed the actors even had instruction sheets on how to act and how to give a good interview.
"We are embarrassed," spokesperson Steve Swasey said. "We regret that this put a blemish on what should have been a perfect day for Netflix."
While Netflix claims embarrassment, it continued to place spin on the situation. Swasey said they are not sure who decided the actors should give media interviews under false pretenses. However, the deception is in the details. It didn't accidently happen if the actors had media interview scripts to work from.
In fact, as Swasey says it was never the company's attempt to mislead the public or the media, the Globe and Mail published the instructions given to actors. It says very clearly that "EXTRAS are to look really excited, particularly if asked by MEDIA to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."
All of which begs the question whether Netflix is embarrassed because of the actors or simply embarrassed that they were caught. The latter seems obvious, especially for a company in the U.S. where the FTC recently accepted a settlement from Reverb Communications for boasting about fake app reviews.
Faking fans, reporters, and reviews is not public relations.
While the allure of being the star is always tempting for some, public relations professionals are always tasked to do more than represent their clients. The profession asks them to serve both organizational and public interest. This is doubly important, even in marketing, when you consider how much hinges on a company's ability to make a realistic promise.
In this case, Netflix had always accurately conveyed a brand promise and delivered on that promise. It seems to defy logic that the company should attempt to prove it delivers on promises by risking its reputation with a lie and then persisting to lie by attempting to downplay the bad decision.
The takeaway here is pretty obvious. Faking a splash is less effective than not making a splash. And, equally important, companies caught in the act might as well confess it up front before someone releases the script and undermines the sincerity of any apology. At least, I think so.