Opinion

Jack Shafer

Fake press releases are a public service

By Jack Shafer
November 28, 2012

Yesterday, an enterprising clown used PRWeb to publish a fake press release about the purported purchasing of WiFi provider ICOA by Google for $400 million. The Associated Press, Business Insider, Forbes, TechCrunch and other websites ran stories about the transaction — without gaining confirmation from Google — and shortly after AllThingsD unmasked the release as fraudulent, the hoodwinked news organizations donned hair shirts in penance for their journalistic malpractice.

The pranked news organizations were right to self-flagellate, and the apologies and self-recriminations appeared to be sincere. “We were wrong on this post, for not following up with Google and the other company involved but posting rather than getting waiting [sic] on a solid confirmation beforehand from either source. We apologize to our readers,” confessed TechCrunch.

You don’t even have to be a talented liar to fool the press into publishing one of your lies. You just have to have gumption. In February, the Madison Capital Times got taken in by a phony press release about Representative Paul Ryan pressuring the Smithsonian to delete posters from its archives. A bogus April press release about the Bank of America’s seeking advice from customers on how to run its operation fooled the Dow Jones Newswire, and in June, a fake press release about General Mills got play in the Dow Jones Newswire, WSJ Online, and Fox Business News before the ruse was uncovered. In August, the Los Angeles Times got doubly duped when it ran a story about a nonexistent San Diego pharmacy crackdown that relied on two prank press releases.

The fake Google-ICOA press release may have been part of a “pump-and-dump” stock scheme, theorizes Technology Review, designed to boost the price of ICOA stock fivefold for a few hours, just enough time to reap quick profits. Thanks to the Web, it’s pretty simple to pollute the news stream with a counterfeit press release, as this PRWeb page on pricing indicates: You can send your release to “thousands of news outlets” for as little as $159 a release.

Did a pump-and-dumper really produce the Google-ICOA release? Surely such stock transactions would produce an incriminating paper trail and lead investigators back to the perpetrator, whom they could charge with stock manipulation. Could anybody be that stupid? I’m hoping the Google-ICOA release and others similar to it are minor acts of guerrilla press criticism by folks who have sufficient talent to mimic the press release template but insufficient talent or initiative to explain their low regard for the reporters covering the tech, political, business and crime beats. When a prank press release gets published, it identifies the outlets and journalists who were too lazy to make the single phone call that would have defused the joke. I consider that a real public service.

Or maybe I’m giving the prank press-release crowd too much credit. Perhaps their releases are an adult version of the “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” phone calls that most of us made as kids.

Every prankster wants you to laugh, but some want you to laugh long enough to swallow their political point. The Yes Men excel at this technique: In 2011, they snookered the Associated Press with a release about GE repaying the government for a $3.8 billion tax break, and in 2010 they scored with a campaign against Chevron. In 2010, an unidentified person or group spoofed Koch Industries by distributing a release about climate change that was designed to look like it came from the company. (I don’t think any news organization bit.)

Theoretically, journalists should be the last people to fall for press releases, phony or otherwise. They’re lied to day-in and day-out on the phone by the people who write the genuine press releases I worry more about getting , and a good many of those genuine press releases aren’t exactly honest. I worry about counterfeit press releases, but I’m more suspicious about the real things, which claim to be true.

As much as some critics would like to blame the warp-speed of the Web for their mistakes, the reality is that such hoaxes and their victims have long been with us. Fake press releases are like the viruses that infect vulnerable computer systems; until you fix the system, they’ll continue to work.

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Comments
10 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Benghazi 101: This article ignores the elephant in the room in regard to “fake” press releases, that is Obama and his hacks blaming the murder of the US Ambassador and 3 of his compatriots on a fake “crowd” which never existed and that the whole incident was the result of a You Tube video which the entire media EXCEPT Fox News bought into.
Ready made database of fake excuse videos for the fraud that is Obama and his sycophants.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

When I read “according to a press release…” in the news, I expect what follows to be hype or spin and my BS filtration system kicks up to full power. I think most people who read news are the same, so those news (and “news”) organizations that frequently publish fake news will eventually lose readers. Getting caught red-handed will only speed up that process.

Posted by Darthen | Report as abusive
 

There is a continuum stretching between real press releases and fake ones.
Let’s face it – many press releases are pretty much exercises in PR, and many media outlets are happy to publish stories about them if the source happens to be a big company like Apple, or one that draws public attention such as Facebook, or a ‘celebrity’ who’s business is essentially to get stuff about themselves published.
The result is that we’re immersed in BS, pardon the expression.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive
 

Of course, the claim can be reliably made that journalists lie day-in and day-out to the audiences they serve, fabricating sources and quotes and making up information to fit the narrative they wish to tell.

My point simply is that liars and thieves exist in every profession, not just in public relations. And while the stereotype of public-relations-professional-as-liar is a reliable applause generator, any public relations professional who regularly misleads journalists (vs. a press-distributing bot) is not going to last long in this profession. And shouldn’t.

It’s the obligation of every public relations professional to serve the journalist community, which means helping journalists ferret out the facts and get their stories correct. The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics (www.prsa.org/ethics) requires PRSA members and encourages other public relations professionals not only to “act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible,” but also to “investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.”

Arthur Yann is VP/PR for PRSA.

Posted by arthur_y | Report as abusive
 

A mistake: Jack assumes that Business Insider, Forbes, and Techcrunch are “news organizations.” These are not news organizations, but “content providers” with few journalistic standards. AP is quickly heading their way.

Posted by hrmhrm | Report as abusive
 

We definitely have a “fooling frenzy” of lies described as press releases from our politicians. It’s never going to stop, because you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. The Obama administration and the democratic party definitely believe in the marxist idea of telling a very big lie and saying it over and over until people satrt to believe it.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive
 

Arthur,
With all due respect, you’re kidding, right?

Posted by azand | Report as abusive
 

JP007, So is EVERYTHING about Benghazi in rightie land nowadays?

Posted by USAPragmatist | Report as abusive
 

this article seems well-researched…there plenty of examples of media outlets biting on bogus press releases. what amazes me is that all the reporter’s work turned up no examples of reuters falling prey to a bogus release.

Posted by jgc1970 | Report as abusive
 

Reuters was taken in by a bogus study in which the researchers made some pretty juicy claims, but would only turn over the study to reporters who agreed not to seek third party opinions. Turns out the study had some pretty major flaws and the researchers were using the media to get lots of sensational coverage.
http://embargowatch.wordpress.com/2012/0 9/21/stenographers-anyone-gmo-rat-study- co-sponsor-engineered-embargo-to-prevent -scrutiny/

Posted by hulama | Report as abusive
 

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