What is dark PR?

Public relations in a new light – the evil sibling of PR

Have you ever been the target of online criticism from a former customer, employee, business partner or competitor? If so, you know how painful that can be. Today, when companies or entrepreneurs become the object of manipulated disinformation and increased media coverage, which damages their image and reputation, it could well be so-called “dark PR”. Dark pr measures are designed by e.g. competitors and a respective dark PR agency. Because there are not only the ‘classic’ PR firms that want to present organizations or authorities to the public, but also PR agencies that specialize in destroying rather than enhancing corporate reputation. So if a company does not manage to make its mark in the traditional way, it is possible at present to defame, damage and destroy a business rival through covert dark PR activities.

When a company gets in the crosshairs of such a dark PR campaign, the only way to counteract this is a good reputation risk and crisis management. This is because dark PR agencies are experts in their field: they generate false messages, spread disinformation and use social networks to weaken and denounce their target. To achieve this, such dark PR professionals manipulate the opinions of stakeholders in a targeted manner. Why do they do this? Because it works.

What is Dark PR?

Dark PR, also called negative PR, refers to any practice that intentionally aims to harm, discredit or destroy a competitor or competing company through PR efforts. In most cases, politically charged campaigns are used that specifically highlight the negative aspects of competitors instead of emphasizing the positive aspects of one’s own brand. These organized smear campaigns can have long-term consequences for affected companies and, in the worst case, even destroy the entire corporate reputation.

How does Dark PR work?

Before the actual conception of specific dark PR measures, attackers must first identify a target for their campaign. Possible targets are whole companies as well as single persons, e.g. managing directors and CEOs. By means of dark PR activities, the reputation of the managing director can be destroyed, so that the reputation of his company is directly affected and competitive advantages can easily be obtained.

Once a company has decided to implement a dark PR campaign, the next step is to procure the actual tool: an dark pr agency! Since some agencies have already specialized in the development and implementation of these dark PR campaigns, the search should not be too difficult.

Step 1: Gathering information and identifying vulnerabilities

So-called crawlers search the network for company data, which in future will form the core of the lubrication campaign. Not only information that is currently available on the net is collected, but also information that is no longer available on the surface of the net is made visible through online archives such as the Wayback Machine. This means that older website versions will become visible through applications such as Wayback Machine. Because what has been made public digitally once, will remain forever. Other application practices to access information are for example: Hacking, espionage, data theft, Google hacking.

Step 2: Building a foundation and creating content

The methods and tactics used in the context of dark PR are manifold and almost limitless. At this point, only a few examples shall be mentioned.

Honey traps

A particularly popular Dark PR practice is the so-called ‘Honey Trapping’. Here, a target person is shadowed or seduced by an attacker in order to put him or her in a compromising situation and to record it for posterity by video, voice or photo recording. To make dark PR perfect, the material is de-contextualized and embedded in, among other things, fake news. For example, a picture showing the managing director of a company with another woman can be embedded in a false report with the aim of accusing the managing director of adultery. For this purpose, the gained material is then put online by the dark PR agents either on the company’s own websites or on social media platforms in order to achieve the greatest possible coverage. In addition, dark PR agents can also create their own written content and thus send manipulated evidence to colleagues, neighbors or friends of the target person – in other words, to anyone who is capable of causing lasting damage to the target person’s reputation online.

False or fake content

Let your imagination run free is the motto here. In this case, an attacker invents, among other things, false or misleading blog or social media articles or creates a website with false content. The goal: to present a company or person in a negative light and thus damage or destroy its reputation. This dark PR method is easy to implement and shows great success. Because: with a little faith and sufficient evidence, people who have even the slightest affinity to the widespread, false and manipulated content will believe it. Especially when the news that is spread corresponds with their own world view. This phenomenon is also called confirmation error or distortion and is skillfully used by the dark PR professionals.

Social media and e-mail manipulation

If an attacker manages to crack the target’s personal passwords or otherwise obtain personal and confidential information, he can infiltrate the target’s social media and e-mail accounts for his own purposes. In this way, offensive, reputation-damaging or unflattering photos, videos or comments can be published or sent.

Unauthorized leaks

Attackers can leak damaging information about a target person or company to intelligence services, competitors or others. These in turn can damage the reputation of the target person or company in the digital space.

Manipulated reviews

Online review sites such as Kununu or Yelp are exemplarily infiltrated by attackers with the help of various camouflage tactics (including trolls or social bots) and used for the purpose of manipulation. This way, disinformation campaigns can reach a broad public and present the target person or the target company in a bad light without having to invest large resources.

Step 3: Reach the right addressees

Thanks to digitalization, it is now easy to reach a large number of people in a very short time. For the distribution of dark PR content, so-called Dark Ads are a good choice. This is the distribution of ‘dark’ online advertising, which is only visible to the publisher of the ad and the previously determined target group. This way, the publisher can send different ads to different target groups and thus increase the success rate of dark PR. Dark ads are often found on online platforms and in social media. But also via publisher networks, dark net and deep web, the manipulated and reputation-damaging content can be circulated. Because many roads lead to Rome.

What are the consequences of dark PR?

One person’s joy, another person’s sorrow: Once a smear campaign has found its way into the public eye, at least one person can be happy – the client. Because the competing company was presented in the worst possible light and the own business was boosted again. But the consequences for the damaged company are severe. The loss of the company’s reputation is one thing – long-term financial damage is another. So an organized smear campaign can not only destroy the reputation, the image and the trust in a company and/or an entrepreneur, but can also cause stock prices to collapse and ultimately lead to the loss of locations and jobs

Dark PR should therefore not be underestimated. Even if widespread disinformation about companies is subsequently cleared up and effectively identified, a negative aftertaste remains.

Who is behind dark PR?

Behind dark PR are mostly agencies that are specialized in carrying out reputation attacks against companies or individuals in order to cause lasting damage. These agencies can be engaged by virtually anyone. No matter if dissatisfied employees, competing companies or lobby groups – the faces of the clients can be manifold. Especially the presence of trolls – real persons who, for economic reasons, provoke and disturb discourse with their contributions in the social web or computer programs used by humans like social bots – makes the implementation of dark PR measures quite simple. Above all, because in the age of social networks, it no longer requires a great deal of IT knowledge to spread reputation-damaging content. These can even be sold to anyone for little money on the so-called Disinformation as a Service market (DaaS) in Dark Net.

So what should become clear to all of us is that it has never been easier to target people or companies with negative PR campaigns and thus cause great economic damage in the long run. The search engine provider Google announced in the past to focus more and more on fake news sites, but the problem is certainly not the channels, but rather the people who use them. So when Google takes strong action against fake news sites, for example, it is of course good, but the damage has already been done. Because: the disinformation circulates in the never forgetting net and the attackers are usually over all mountains.

Who is affected by Dark PR?

Me, You, He, It, We, – in principle, almost anyone can be a victim of dark PR attacks and be targeted by criminal agencies. However, since large organizations, institutions or companies basically have more to lose than individuals, they are more likely to get caught in the wildfire. The business with dark PR is lucrative: On the one hand, companies own a lot of data, which can make profits in the dark web, and on the other hand, market advantages can be enforced for e.g. competitors, if the ‘clean’ way doesn’t work anymore.

How can companies protect themselves from dark PR campaigns?
Once companies have become the target of a smear campaign, it is difficult to drive the cart out of the mud. We therefore recommend to act preventive.

Create awareness

By closing not only the technical but also the human security gaps in your company. This requires above all employee sensitization and empowerment as well as preventive employee training. So you know how to act in case of emergency. Because yes, your company can also become the target of a lubrication campaign.

Create the right structures

With the right tools, crises can be averted in time. Professional crisis management is the be-all and end-all here. Risk analyses and controlling measures, a crisis manual and the preparation of a digital infrastructure provide the necessary overview. We are happy to help you with the right tools: digitalize your crisis management with our CRISIS MANAGEMENT APP.

Practice the emergency in the crisis team

Try makes smart! If a company has already gone through a crisis or at least simulated it in advance, it is easier to deal with it in an emergency. In this way, certain empirical values can be drawn on within the company and crisis communication can be simplified. The ability of employees to adequately deal with crisis situations is particularly important. Be prudent and practice the emergency – for example, with a social media crisis simulation.

Make rules

By defining how users, but also employees, should behave on your digital channel. Internal and external communication are the key here.

Web monitoring as the key to success: Set it up

Potential dangers must be recognized and analyzed early on. A fully automated web monitoring system that monitors public information flows and thus extracts relevant information is ideal for this purpose. Evaluating this data manually is not very helpful. In order to enhance your crisis and reputation management, we would be happy to help you with our BUZZMAPPER. So you are not alone in the event of a crisis.

Design counter measures

Ignoring lubrication campaigns will not help you out of a jam. Therefore, carry out a risk analysis at an early stage, identify potential danger scenarios and derive individual measures for an emergency.

You want to prepare your company for a Dark PR attack? We are at your side. PREVENCY® helps your company not to get into a crisis in the first place.

Better safe than sorry.