Infiltration is not a monitoring technique

Posted on November 9, 2010 8:48 am by | Monitoring | Transparency

Shel HoltzNot only is monitoring online conversation appropriate when your organization is in the midst of a controversy. It’s irresponsible not to. How else can an organization learn the issues that are important to the public in order to address them?

There are, however, right ways and wrong ways to go about the monitoring. Violating the principles of transparency fits into the “wrong way” category.

Bay Area power utility PG&E has been enbroiled in controversy since its flawed roll-out of smart meters, technologically-advanced meters that transmit data to the company, ending the need to send meter readers walking through neighborhoods to collect consumption information. Yesterday, a senior director of the SmartMeter program admitted that he had used a fake name to join online forums where members criticized the program.

It was, as is so often the case these days, a regular member of one of the forums who uncovered the director’s trickery.

In reporting the story, the Contra Costa Times said the disclosure “is likely to be yet another public relations disaster for the utility.” The article also quoted The utility Reform Network Executive Director Mark Toney’s dismay at the subterfuge: “Covert electronic surveillance does nothing to help PG&E rebuild the public trust it squandered.”

The PG&E director, William Devereaux, tried explaining that his intent was simply to get a better understanding of what customers were thinking. He also said that he took the action without PG&E’s knowledge.

Nevertheless, the public now perceives that Devereaux was engaged in infiltration, a dramatically different activity that monitoring. Subscription to a monitoring service (and God knows there are plenty of them) would have produced better intelligence than Deveraux’s one-man effort without engaging in any deception at all.

Even better, Devereaux and others could have undergone some quick-and-dirty training on engagement, then participated in the conversations taking place in these discussion groups as clearly identified representatives of PG&E. Other organizations—GM comes to mind—have been active on blogs and other forums where their products are being discussed. Honest engagement builds credibility. Deceit destroys it.

Whatever appropriate means PG&E could have employed in order to achieve Deveraux’s intent “to better understand what was behind much of the resistance,” the company clearly does not have a culture of transparency and now is in hot water because of it.

Of course, cultures of transparency remain absent in many organizations as revelations of paid staff pretending to be customers in product forums and review sites continue to emerge on a startingly regular basis. You would think after the heat Whole Foods CEO John Mackey took for assuming a fake identity in financial forums would have been enough to put an end to this kind of behavior.

The bottom-line message for organizations that continue to practice deceit in their marketing and communication efforts is this: There are no secrets, only information you don’t yet have. (Hat tip to Adam Curry for that one.)

Incidentally, if you want more information on creating a culture of transparency in your organization, you can always read the book John C. Havens and I wrote about it, Tactical Transparency.



  • 1.Interesting. I can almost see why they took the hidden approach rather than open engagement and problem solving/listening. It's doubtful that community input can get a licensed monopoly to stop measuring utility usage so why even listen to complaints (I can imagine this being said in a social media planning meeting and don't recommend it). It's a bit ironic that we're debating a covert monitoring device that measures electricity hogs, when the conversations could've been presented in open forum with rationale explained, tech innovations & savings shared and concerns answered. Oh well, there's always solar ;).
    Miss you Shel - hope you are well.

    Adam Zand | November 2010 | Boston

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