PR Firms: You’re Never “Anonymous” on the Internet

I was overjoyed when occasional PR client and leading urbanist blogger Aaron Renn (@urbanophile) republished my recent tourism post, Meet Me in St. Louis, Not Milwaukee: How Not to Oversell Your Urban Tourism Campaign, on his Urbanophile blog. I was a little taken aback when “Dave,” an anonymous commenter, left a scathingly ad hominem response in both places (here and here.) Whereas I think the current tourism campaign of Milwaukee’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Milwaukee, is overblown, “Dave” thinks it’s just fine. He also thinks I’m a rotten writer, Renn’s an egomaniac, and that neither one of us has enough standing to opine on urban issues.

As our readers know, that last part is ridiculous on the face of it. But what’s even more ridiculous is where the anonymous comment seems to have come from…within the walls of Visit Milwaukee’s own PR firm. Earlier today, a Wisconsin blogger contacted me about a suspicion that “Dave” might actually be a Visit Milwaukee insider. I doubted that could be the case–what CVB or PR firm would ever allow a staffer to discuss company business in an anonymous, attacking manner? Especially by leaving an anonymous comment regarding public criticism of the public PR work of a firm’s high-profile, publicly accountable client?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever browsed the Internet that when you merely visit a web page–much less leave a comment on one–you leave a trail behind you. That trail is the IP address from which you’re connecting to the web. For home users, that address is often a dynamic one–it may change every time you go online. For many business users, however, that IP address is static–i.e. permanent. Fixed. Unchanging. To paraphrase John Carpenter’s cinematic masterpiece, Halloween, IP addresses stand where man passes away.

I bet you can see where this is headed.

“Dave” signed his comment with the spoof email address, “no@gmail.com.” However, my blog’s content management system recorded his I.P. address: 67.52.198.230. According to this IP trace, that address turns out to be the static IP of a business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: “NOISE-INC.”

Doesn’t that name sound like a PR firm? It should. In fact, Noise Inc. is not only a PR firm, it’s the PR firm with the Visit Milwaukee web-brand contract. They say so right here on their site. But don’t just take their word for it, the Milwaukee Business Journal says it, too. Just as curious, a simple Google search associating the firm with the name, “Dave,” returns on the very first page a LinkedIn listing (which out of respect I won’t link here) for a…get this…”Social Media Evangelist” of the same name, living in Milwaukee, and employed by none other than Noise Inc.

The only thing missing from the jaw-dropping adventure of Googling all of this today was a bag of popcorn and a stadium seat, folks.

While I can demonstrate the “Dave” comment came from the IP address of Noise Inc., I cannot say that it was an employee of theirs who left it, even the one noted above. It could have come from a third party using a computer of theirs or perhaps signing into a Wifi network they may operate. And even if the comment did come from a Noise Inc. employee, that doesn’t mean Noise Inc., itself, condoned it.

But honestly, an ad hominem comment responding to a blog post critical of the Visit Milwaukee ad campaign that’s written like a love letter to the campaign and was submitted from the IP address of a PR firm associated with the campaign? How much more like a duck does this story have to walk and talk before someone throws it back in the pond?

Two and a half hours ago I emailed Noise Inc.’s three top officials regarding the comment, including most of the links I shared above (and the LinkedIn one as well.)  As listed on the company website, those I contacted include chairman and chief creative officer John Sprecher, chief executive officer and partner Milissa Sprecher, and president Mary Parodo. As of this writing, I have not heard back from the firm. That’s fine. All I really have to say on the matter is in this post.

To wit: Noise Inc. owes itself–not to mention the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau, which I doubt would find the offending comment as amusing as “Dave” did–to figure out how that comment got on my blog from their office. If it was written by a third party, the company should be more careful about whom it allows to access its network. If it was written by an employee–especially a “Social Media Evangelist”–perhaps they should find another employee (and this time, one who actually understands social media.) And if, on the off chance, they happen to condone the comment, then perhaps the Milwaukee CVB should find another PR firm.

I hear St. Louis has a good one.

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