The Yes Men are activists whose business, according to their website, is "Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."
On Monday, their target was the United States Chamber of Commerce. As the National Post reported earlier this week, the Yes Men booked the National Press Club in Washington late last week for a news conference, under the name "U.S. Council on Climate, which has the same acronym as the Chamber. On Monday morning, they called and changed the contact information for the event, and set up their press conference with U.S. Chamber of Commerce logos."
Staff at the National Press Club realized something was up, and alerted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the fraudulent news conference was about to take place. The video below shows what happened when a legitimate representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce arrived on the scene.
While the news conference was only a few minutes old when it got broken up, a number of media outlets had already reported on the announcement. According to the National Post,
"Reuters had already filed a story based on a fake press release. The news appeared on several websites and was announced on live television; an anchor for the Fox Business Network retracted the news within seconds of reporting it. Reuters quickly issued a correction."The situation was an embarrassment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Press Club, as well as the media who reported the story before realizing it was a hoax. But the Yes Men certainly got what they wanted: national headlines and coverage of their messages on climate change.
Some may see publicity stunts like this one as victimless crimes; and in some cases, they might be (other than the damage done to the credibility of the PR and media industries). But in others, there can be real victims: as the National Post story recounted, in 1994 the same front man for the Yes Men
"tricked the BBC into thinking he worked for Dow Chemical. In an interview with the broadcaster, he said Dow would pay US$12-million to the victims of India's Bhopal gas disaster. By the time that stunt was exposed a few hours later, the company's stock had plunged by US$2-billion."
This story has highlighted the fundamental problem of a "tweet-first-ask-questions-later" approach to journalism today, driven by the need to stay ahead of social media in breaking news. Whereas reporters used to have time to do background research before filing stories, today they are pressured to get the news out, at least in some preliminary form, as soon as they receive it. As the media landscape evolves, journalists will need to find a way to ensure the accuracy of what they're reporting, if they want to remain a credible source for their audiences.
In first-year PR classes at Red River College this year, we have discussed professional codes of ethics, and why professional associations like the Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators would need to have them; this story provides us with a perfect illustration of why such ethics codes are needed.
The Yes Men's stunt may have earned headlines, but it did nothing to build relationships. Ethical public relations does not employ dishonesty, arguing that the means justifies the ends; rather, ethical public relations involves open, honest communications between a client and its audiences, in the interests of fostering better understanding and, hopefully, earning trust and support.
It's important for ethical public relations practitioners to denounce actions like those of the Yes Men, because in some circles, their tactics are understood, incorrectly, to be the tactics of PR.