Yesterday The Guardian reported on a new social media product called “Sway” that not only mines the online conversation, but purports to “influence” that conversation. Sherrilynne at StrivePR pointed to the piece.

Sway’s makers at the UK-based marketing group Creston make no claims about lowering one’s cholesterol. Instead, the company’s “Director of Influence” had this to say:

“We eavesdrop on the conversation, and then impart that public domain information to clients in a structured way. It’s important not only to collect that information but to influence the conversation.”

“Eavesdrop,” “sway,” “influence”… This is language guaranteed to raise the hackles of journalists of any stripe. In fact, they are what likely precipitated the Guardian to report the story in the first place. Why not just call the product “Spin?”

At a time when digital has blurred the lines between PR, marketing and advertising and the rules of social media relations are still being written, it’s dangerous (if not disingenuous) to tout one’s ability to manipulate the cacophonous world of social media.

Sure, monitoring and analyzing what’s being said across multiple platforms are vital steps in the development of a PR, marketing or crisis communications program. My friend Rob Key at Converseon has built a booming practice by doing just that for the last several years.

It’s what you do with publicly available online intelligence that will continue to elicit scrutiny for some years to come. The Guardian reporter rightfully poses this question:

“So if the point of this is to “sway” the online conversation in the brand’s favour, does that make the internet a less objective place for consumers? And what will that do for online trust?”

Creston’s director of influence responded: “Brands definitely need to be transparent. It would take away from the credibility of their own site if they weren’t.” Right.

PR practitioners, of all the marketing professionals, learned long ago that our success “swaying” the conversation will come through journalistic engagement, enlightenment and education. Marketing types, who’ve toiled in the realm of paid and controlled messaging, just have a harder time grasping the subtle discipline of working with the fourth estate.

Know this, marketers: mainstream (and citizen) journalists will always bristle at the notion of being swayed, influenced or spun. As one AP reporter recently quipped, “I don’t care to be a cog in your marketing campaign.”