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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, “” However, my blog’s content management system recorded his I.P. address: 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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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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8 replies

  1. Jeez Mike, you’re a snitch.

    As annoying as bad arguers are, the best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Sometimes people that are vitriolic also happen to have good points. It is up to readers to decide whether they want to wade through the rhetoric to find the good points. Most people don’t feel like it, so they skip over the comment. Some people enjoy it. Either way, you are under no obligation to respond to posts you find insulting.

    Dave didn’t really do anything wrong, except maybe waste company time. If he had written that comment and signed it as an employee of Noise Inc, then that would have been a mistake. But he didn’t. The only way anybody knew he was a noise inc employee was through snooping. Dave signed his name, he didn’t sign his company name. He did that on purpose. We should be allowed to hang out on the internet and talk sh-t under our own names if we want to.

    You might have got this guy fired. All because he insulted you.

    1. Yes, I am a snitch. I believe in fairness, not protecting someone else’s stupidity. (And by the way, one comment is fine. Unlike Dave you needn’t troll my blog as you did today to leave this comment in multiple places.)

      What Dave did is unethical by the standards of the PR industry, of which I am a part. I contacted NOISE Inc. because I don’t appreciate other PR professionals deciding they can play by their own rules instead of industry best practices. To do what Dave did is not only unfair within the industry, it’s also misleading to other commenters and a potential conflict of interest.

      Furthermore, if you think looking up someone’s IP address is snooping, then if I were you I’d be more careful than you likely are with your own tracks on the Internet. Where on my blog do I give anyone an expectation that anonymous comments are allowed? When I ask for an email address to sign in? When I offer people to sign in with Twitter or Facebook? If anyone thinks anyone’s anonymous on the Internet, they should probably Google themselves first. By the way, best of luck at Washington University-St. Louis. Get my point yet?

      Dave’s entitled to his opinion, just like you and me. But if you do something as stupid as to misrepresent yourself regarding one of your employer’s biggest clients and get caught doing it, it’s your own fault and you have no one to blame but yourself. If Dave gets fired (and I doubt he will), I won’t lose any sleep over it, I assure you.

      Free to talk shit on the Internet, as you put it. But not on my blog.

  2. Well, this has certainly been entertaining (even if not meant to be), further support for my absolute disdain for anonymous commenters. Anonymity has seriously degraded the quality of discourse on the web. Perhaps it’s my sadistic side, but I’m glad to see someone called out for it.

  3. Mike:

    Thank you for commenting on my position. If I may, I’d like to reiterate somewhat here what I wrote to you Thursday evening:

    Neither office of NOISE, in Milwaukee as well as in Florida, had any knowledge of our employee’s actions when he penned his response to your critique. Owning this business almost 25 years, I’ve been lucky enough to learn a few things in that time — and one of them is, everybody’s got a right to an opinion; you certainly have a right to yours; and criticism comes with anything that’s public in nature, including advertising (even more so when dealing with high visibility entities). So suck it up and deal with it.

    Oh, and here’s another lesson for my account team: maybe, if the critic is pointing out some potential improvements, be a pro, weigh the value of the criticism and if you can, learn from it.

    For the record, “Dave” is a passionate, enthusiastic and (until this misguided episode) smart young man who is fiercely (blindly?) loyal to his clients and his employer. I’ve probably made a “righteously indignant” stupid mistake or two in my life and regretted it. In fact, I know I have. I think Perry has and will, too.

    In the end, while his comments were in no way instructed and are in no way condoned by my company, they are nonetheless associated with us and for that, again, I am sorry.

    And as I indicated, you (and your readers) have a warm welcome standing invitation to visit Milwaukee this weekend or anytime. We’ll make sure that the first round’s on NOISE.

    P.S. While I’m not sure why CEO Milissa Sprecher’s image loaded with my name, I can attest she’s much nicer to look at than me.

    1. John, I appreciate you posting this. As I told you this morning, I forgot to ask you to do so, but I really wanted you to have your say here. Again, no hard feelings with NOISE or Visit Milwaukee. And I hope Dave comes out of this with a better understanding of social media as well. It’s power as well as its intricacies.

      (As far as the gravatar goes, it is likely Milissa’s image is associated with the URL for NOISE in the database or in RealID on your website.)

  4. This evening, I received an emailed and rather gracious apology from Noise Inc. chairman and owner John Sprecher. Apparently, I was right on the money about who “Dave” was–their social media “evangelist” whose LinkedIn page I tracked down. The comment was left without the knowledge or approval of the firm, and as Sprecher told me tonight:

    “Dave…does in fact exist and is an employee of NOISE, although after this news today he may no longer be an employee.”

    It’s not that I think Dave isn’t entitled to his opinion. He is. But when you’re commenting on a discussion of your own firm’s work, it’s pretty smarmy practice not to identify yourself as intimately tied to the object of discussion. It’s also a good way to embarrass your firm and potentially your firm’s clients. But at this point I think that’s pretty obvious.

    As I told Sprecher in my response to his email, it’s also a shame. Not to toot our collective horn too loudly, but Aaron Renn and I are both rather clued-in, somewhat noted bloggers. When we write about urban issues, others tend to take notice, both in Chicago and, especially for Renn, nationally. If Dave had taken the time to enter into thoughtful debate with either one of us, he would have been strengthening his firm’s social network and this story might have ended up as a follow-up on ideas to improve the Visit Milwaukee ad campaign instead of his turning his own firm into the headline.

    So no hard feelings to Noise Inc. or Visit Milwaukee, and I remain a fan of the city to the north no matter what. But speaking as someone who has a tendency to burn unnecessary bridges, I hope Dave learns to harness the power of the social media he’s supposed to be evangelizing in a friendlier manner.

    Ahem, wherever he ends up.

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