How journalists can avoid a James O’Keefe-style sting

February 6, 2017

Undercover videographer and conservative political activist James O’Keefe made a vow on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration: “I’m going after the media next,” he said. “We have your name. We have your number. We are embedded in your institutions. We are inside the newsrooms, and that is our next target.” O’Keefe later claimed he already has “hundred of hours” of media-related video.

ICYMI: The journalist who deserves “special credit” for that stunning WashPo undercover sting story

This threat comes as O’Keefe’s prominence in politics has spiked. He’s known for stings that feature secretly obtained footage edited for maximum impact (he’s most famous for an undercover operation that led to the downfall of the now-defunct community organizing group ACORN). O’Keefe, whose work on voter fraud President Trump endorsed just weeks before Election Day, recently told The Washington Post that his latest sting video led the FBI to arrest a man suspected of planning a violent inauguration protest. “It legitimizes what we’re doing,” O’Keefe told the Post. “It’s a new era for us.”

O’Keefe and others like him use a common playbook that guarantees they will get some footage to piece together into a promotional video, even when the subject of the sting follows the rules. For example, O’Keefe visited polling locations in Detroit and Michigan, claimed to have no identification and asked for the ballots of famous people.  Poll workers offered O’Keefe an affidavit to sign swearing that he was not committing identity fraud, which he declined to do, and he used the footage of those exchanges to insinuate that he had obtained the ballots.

ICYMI: NYTimes editor apologizes after article sparks outrage 

Disclosure: My firm, Camino Public Relations, has worked with organizations affected by these kinds of undercover video stings and advises others that are navigating highly contentious social issues.

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Here are 10 things news organizations and journalists should watch for to avoid landing a starring role in one of these videos:

  1. The driving premise of those engaging in undercover-video stings borrows from a Saul Alinsky rule: Humiliating an individual is a powerful pathway to disrupting an institution. These operatives aim to find individuals, however loosely connected to an organization or movement, who will make a comment or take an action that challenges the way an institution presents itself to the public. While this may not often prove actual fraud in action, it aims to sow doubt. This can be any employee, vendor, freelancer, PR rep, donor, interviewee, or even a customer. The very definition of infiltration in this universe is so broad that video provocateurs are sure to declare victory even if they gain access to the receptionist desk rather than the inner workings of a corporation. From the perspective of the sting orchestrator, their work aims to reveal some fundamental, inconvenient truth (in this case, fraud in a federal program that subsidizes mobile phones for low-income people).
  1. Infiltrators know that using the endorsements of trusted people and companies can help open doors with insiders, particularly via social media platforms such as LinkedIn. They are also expert at using old-fashioned networking to gain access to private conversations. Recently, an operative in an O’Keefe sting asked his target to help him get his niece a job, thus planting an additional operative.
  1. Operatives almost always use fake identification or claim fake identities. Expect these infiltrators to create fake companies, make real donations while posing as fake donors, host fake websites, and use fake identification. Operatives keep these assets alive for years at a time. In one instance, anti-abortion activist David Daleiden is alleged to have created a fake company and used fake government ID to gain access to medical professionals. In another, O’Keefe concocted a fake company (including a basic website) in an attempt to lure filmmakers into accepting money from a dubious source.
  1. Undercover operatives play on empathy to encourage rule bending or some level of deceit. Plenty has been written about how ethical people decide to break the rules. In general, if you find yourself talking to someone you’ve recently met (who appeals to your expertise or sense of self-importance) and you find yourself saying something like, “I’m going to share this but it didn’t come from me…,” you have made yourself vulnerable to operatives. (That case involved bid rigging for a school-district contract.)
  1. Operatives use gossip or social event chit-chat to generate criticism about the boss or workplace decisions, and get subjects to concur or divulge secrets about the inner workings of an operation. In one sting a deputy attorney general in Maryland admits to an operative (as he flirts with her) that he is “winging it” in his job and that his boss does not want to run for governor.
  1. Ego and alcohol add up to regretful comments. Fundraisers, public events, and conferences are golden opportunities for undercover operatives. A key strategy is to attend the cocktail hour, or hang out in the bar of hotels where conference attendees are staying, hoping that the combination of alcohol, flirtatiousness, and ego-boosting comments will open the tap of exaggeration or private storytelling. After New York Elections Commissioner Alan Schulkin was featured criticizing Democrats in what he thought was a private conversation at a Christmas party, he explained that he was trying to “placate” a woman who was a “nuisance.”
  1. Even when someone has the appearance of legitimacy, it’s important to verify their identity. Undercover operatives have posed as a telephone repair operator, a flower delivery person, a physician, a public works employee, and more.
  1. Operatives subvert organizational rules and culture to their advantage. For example, O’Keefe operatives visited a labor union with a culture that eschews demeaning any types of work, presented members with a nonsensical work proposal, and subsequently deceptively edited the video footage when the union representatives tried to steer the operatives toward more productive work instead of treating the operatives more harshly.
  1. Operatives look for situations where people are already emotional about something they care deeply about, and then do something provocative. For example, they pretended to be Hillary Clinton supporters and wandered through a crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters protesting outside of the Democratic National Convention, generating footage of activists appearing angry and combative.
  1. Like many journalists, operatives use old-fashioned ambush techniques to get interviews or comments. But often they take it a step farther with more aggressive techniques that would not be endorsed in most newsrooms. In one case a journalist was ambushed at his home by a man who appears to be O’Keefe pretending to be a Verizon employee conducting a satisfaction survey. O’Keefe recently published video of a counter-sting where one of his operatives was ambushed by the people she was trying to catch on video, where she is heard being badgered with aggressive and sexual taunts and being followed even into her cab. A more common undercover operative strategy is to confront someone that’s been secretly recorded for comment about the recording. The minute you find out you are on an O’Keefe video, get ready for an ambush.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid appearing in a secretly recorded video is to adhere to the high standards of journalism. Operatives have hours of useless footage of people saying the right thing. Even people who have adhered to the law or professional standards can end up featured. You should assume conversations with strangers are not private, remember that you are a journalist (or work for a media corporation) at all times, and keep your comments in context.

Another consideration for journalists is how to cover the sting videos O’Keefe delivers. As CJR has reported, the best way to approach them is to fully vet the details before reporting. But past stings have been met with a checkerboard of reporting standards. Given new battles between journalists and the White House over what constitutes facts, perhaps the next set of sting videos will be held to a more rigorous standard.

ICYMI: Explosive BuzzFeed scoop raises eyebrows

Elizabeth Toledo is president of New York-based Camino PR and a specialist in using communications strategies to address controversial social issues. Her firm has been recognized for its service to clients managing the aftermath of viral undercover videos. She is a former vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.