When I began pursuing a college education, I was unaware that public relations was even a field of study, but it was something in which I quickly became interested.
Public relations, by definition, is the study of the relationship between the public and a company or other organization. This entails the understanding of social perception and the cultivation of positive relationships between people and companies using social media, advertising, marketing and more.
Public elations is often paired with a negative connotation, so when I began studying this topic it was important for me to maintain ethical and professional guidelines. Over the past three years I have taken many ethics classes regarding media, and one had us consider specific incidents in our field of study to take a deep dive on how they were handled.
Before most people plan trips, many Google what the best vacation to go on is. They Google the activities, restaurants and shops to visit. They check out the plane ticket prices and dates available to travel. Most notably, when they Google about their adventures, the first site to pop up with all the important information is usually Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is a website where volunteers write an overview of a topic based on sourced articles. Anyone can write and edit Wikipedia pages. That plays an important role in an advertising scandal involving North Face manipulating Wikipedia and hacking the articles to gain free advertising.
This situation surrounds North Face, a mountaineering retail store, and its unethical advertisements using Wikipedia. North Face Brazil’s marketing team launched a campaign called “Top of Images” where they hired photographers to travel around the world and take photos of their adventures while wearing North Face gear. The idea was to then take these photos and replace the original images of people traveling on Wikipedia for their own. Then, anytime someone went to google a trip to an adventurous activity, North Face’s photo would pop up and the consumer would see the North Face logo.
From a merely PR perspective, the idea is very intriguing. It is an easy way to reach millions of people. However, ethically, it violates Wikipedia’s “paid advocacy” and “conflict of interest guidelines.” It also forces advertisements onto people who are unwilling and unsuspecting. Not only did North Face pull this PR stunt, but afterward they made a video where they boasted about how they “hacked” Wikipedia for their own gain. That video was then posted to YouTube and later became the way Wikipedia found out about the stunt.
But it is worth considering: was North Face truly in the wrong? Technically, North Face legally advertised the company; however, they did it against the guidelines of another company. On the other hand, you could consider how Wikipedia prides itself on the ability for everyone to edit the articles, so is it strange that they are so upset at North Face for doing the same? Most importantly, is all publicity good publicity?
Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet, and playwright once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It is worth noting that Wilde made this remark back in the 1800s. Without the resources of a digital world, any talk would have been beneficial to get your name out.
However, with social media, websites, television, etc., “any” publicity is not good enough. Nowadays consumers attempt to be more socially responsible with the companies they choose because society votes with its dollars. There has been a shift in the public relations community for some years, and that comes with the realization that people want the companies that they support to be ethical. That includes how they obtain their products, how the products are made, how the workers are treated and even how they are advertised fairly and truthfully. Cancel culture, “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure” (Merriam-Webster) should be a company’s biggest fear. The consumer holds the power, and when you try to betray or trick them, your company could be cut.
This case was eye opening for PR professionals. Is the goal to trick the consumers? Of course not. I do not believe that North Face was intentionally trying to manipulate the public, but I do believe that they unethically advertised somewhere that it didn’t belong. Nothing was stopping them from sharing their images on their own websites, social media and newsletters or even sponsoring people to go on adventures with their gear. Nothing was stopping them from going the ethical route. The main take away is that earned media is much better than paid media, and it is significantly better than stolen media.