What is the Third-Party Technique

The third-party technique is a marketing strategy used by public relations firms that utilizes the media to propagate positive messaging about a client. The third-party technique may take many forms, but generally involves utilizing journalists to promote a company's products or services under the guise of news coverage. Such coverage is designed to be positive in nature and may utilize varying methods to achieve or simulate newsworthiness.

Breaking Down Third-Party Technique

The third-party technique may involve the hiring of a reporter to create content that portrays a company in a positive manner or sponsoring an industry trade group or academic institution (known as a front group) to create dubious or skewed research that achieves the same goal. Astroturfing, which involves the creation of what appears to be a grassroots organization but in reality was created by a company or industry group to serve their interests, is an example of the third-party technique.

Individuals and groups that pass along messages from a public relations firm using the third-party technique rely on the public's perception of them being reliable and independent sources. The public has to believe that the parties presenting the message are genuine and working in their best interest, even if the individual or organization is part of a front group.

Third-party Technique and Ethics

The use of the third-party technique is often misleading or manipulative, as it tends to present highly skewed positions or half-truths unknowingly presented as fact by reputable media organizations. The recent growth of the third-party technique has led to the creation of organizations that monitor the use of astroturfing and other third-party marketing, such as PR Watch.

Public relations firms argue that the use of third-parties in disseminating information about a client is a legitimate strategy given the context of waning public perception of corporations and corporate spokespeople. Ideally, such messaging should come from authorities, academics, regulators, political leaders and other public officials. 

Third-party Technique Examples

A frequent example of the third-party technique involves providing advanced news or preferential access to journalists who will provide a positive review, or hiring researchers to present material that backs up a company's claims. Third-party techniques may also seek to latch onto a popular meme, idea, movie, book or other thing in the public eye to promote a message. For example, the 2012 movie "Won't Back Down," about parents who team up to reform an underperforming school, was criticized as a promotion for the privatization of public schools. Critics say the movie both oversimplified such efforts and especially the portrayal of the "parent trigger," which is a legal maneuver that allows parents to change the administration of an underperforming public school — usually by changing it to a charter school. PR Watch provides more examples of the third-party technique.