Sorting the Real from the Fake: Credibility Matters

October 22, 2010

by Neil Hershberg, Senior Vice President, Global Media for Business Wire


Neil Hershberg

Neil Hershberg, SVP - Global Media


Recent news stories on companies victimized by false press releases, fake news stories and bogus web sites describe the perpetrators as “pranksters,” and  dismiss their actions as “spoofs” and “stunts.”

According to my dictionary, the more appropriate term for activities that deliberately seek to deceive others is FRAUD.  And when those actions affect the capital markets, the regulatory authorities are likely to weigh in with their own lengthy lexicon of legal definitions that will put this important issue in its proper perspective.

Several well-known companies have recently been traumatized by a troubling trend known as  “corporate PR hijacking.”  These elaborate campaigns have included fake press releases complete with quotes attributed to actual company executives, counterfeit web sites, and fake news stories appearing on phony sites masquerading as legitimate, well-known news outlets. Companies that reportedly have fallen prey to disinformation tactics include BP, Halliburton, Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil and, most recently, Chevron.

Bona fide media organizations have unwittingly become trapped in this bewildering “House of Mirrors,” conveying erroneous information to the marketplace. These so-called stunts have a habit of snowballing, gaining dangerous momentum that can do irreparable harm.

The issue of fake PR is one that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, and it remains to be seen if marketers and agencies can figure out a way to effectively combat the seemingly greater number of individuals who seem eager to participate in such efforts,” observed Advertising Age.

The challenge of separating fact from fiction on the web certainly isn’t new.

Paul Boutin, writing in The New York Times, said it best:  “On the Internet, every day is April Fool’s Day.” [March 31, 2010]

While portrayed in media accounts as a creative way for critics to convey their message, the reality is that corporate PR hijacking has real victims and unintended consequences.

  • Corporate reputation is a company’s most prized asset. These surreptitious attacks have the potential to cause monumental damage;
  • The integrity of all media is at risk as false information is unintentionally disseminated;
  • Valuations of public companies can be affected as the market reacts to erroneous reports.

In other words, we’re past the point of simple pranks, stunts and spoofs. We’re talking serious business, with major implications for all market participants.

Under these circumstances, the trusted role of Business Wire as a credible news source is more important than ever.

While no organization is totally infallible, Business Wire combines proprietary technology with the largest editorial staff in the industry to deliver some 1,000 stories daily over its patented news delivery platform to the global media, the investment community, and consumers.

Business Wire Connect, our web-based order entry system, enables us to authenticate and validate all issuers. It has been operational since 1998, and is continuously enhanced and upgraded. Our network systems and editorial workflow procedures are independently audited on an annual basis by the world’s leading accounting firms, a mandatory requirement for re-certification as a sanctioned regulatory disclosure service in multiple jurisdictions.

We also realize, however, the limits of technology and that there is no substitute for human intelligence. We have a seasoned staff of close to 200 editors worldwide who vet copy prior to distribution. We are proud to boast that we have the highest editorial accuracy rate in the industry.

While several of our competitors have recently introduced “do-it-yourself” platforms, our goal is be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. There is enough misinformation floating around without our providing yet another pass-through conduit.

Based on our almost half-century performance standards, Business Wire has earned its reputation for credibility in news rooms and trading houses worldwide. In fact, the world’s leading financial information platforms and international news agencies allow us to “auto-publish” our content directly on to their systems, a true testament to our enviable track record.

We appreciate that everyone is understandably mindful of costs these days — as are we. It is especially important, however, to factor in the priceless value of credibility, reliability and trust in any deliberation, qualities that are of paramount importance in today’s chaotic information environment.

Who Do the Media Trust?

July 24, 2009

(edit: Pierson’s full quote appears below.  The initial post paraphrased and omitted a competitor)

The explosion of online news and changes in the media in recent years have prompted a lot of discussion on how much people trust the media, but a recent incident highlights just who it is that the media themselves trust.

Reuters reporter Ransdell Pierson writes about a recent incident in which an unknown party called his office on a Sunday to fax a press release detailing an offer to buy Harman International Industries at a 100% premium from their most recent closing price.

Pierson’s response?

“If it’s such a big transaction, shouldn’t this news be coming over the PRNewswire or BusinessWire?”

Unable to verify the information on the release, Pierson decided not to run it, nor did any major news outlets.  But it popped up in enough places to spike Harman’s share price.  Now, the SEC is suing several parties in Kuwait and Bahrain to recover profits from what appear to be suspicious trades based on the takeover offer, which was in fact fraudulent.

Pierson’s response is a good indicator of how the financial news community views Business Wire — as a legitimate, credible source of news.  It’s a reputation we’ve built over the 48 years, and we’ve done so by ensuring that fraudulent news never makes it to the wire.

Before we’ll send out a press release, we vet it thoroughly, making sure first that the issuing party has properly established membership with Business Wire and is a legitimate organization.

We also have newsrooms staffed 24/7, with experienced editors and staff available around the clock to look at every press release and ensure that it’s real news.  A press release dealing with a known company like Harman — a Business Wire user — and from a company who had not established membership with us and whose existence could not be verified, would not have made it out over our wire.

The media look to us for credibility and legitimacy, and your company can as well.  Our experienced staff and security procedures make us a trusted source for any kind of news.

The Media, Gatekeepers and You

March 19, 2009

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism recently released their 2009 State of the News Media report, their annual look at the health and status of American journalism.  The report provides a wealth of information for anyone involved with media at any level, most of it not very good — nearly every segment of media, with the exception of online news, saw a shrinking audience and declining ad revenues. More and more newspapers face financial troubles — some of which the report believes may be cyclical rather than structural — and small operations like ethnic media and alternative newsweeklies are being hit especially hard due to their scale.  (Although it appears that the supposed impending deaths of a handful of papers may be greatly exaggerated.)

Three news topics — the 2008 elections, the Iraq war and the US economy — accounted for around 55% of the newshole in major mainstream media; the remaining 45% was often devoted to what the report calls “one-week wonders,” hot news topics that generate intensive coverage for a few days, then quickly disappear.  The agendas of the news media and their audiences didn’t align completely, either.  The News Interest Index shows that, for example, when audiences showed a 66% interest in news on rising gas prices over the summer, stories on gas prices filled only 4% of the newshole.

Worst of all may be the public attitudes towards the media.  Generally, a minority of viewers or readers find the majority of TV, cable and print outlets to be credible or believeable.  And strangely, while online news viewership grows, fewer than 25% of users find the top 7 sites to be particularly credible.  Only Google News and Yahoo! News — both of which are aggregators and don’t do original reporting — were rated as positive on a credibility scale.

There’s a lot more there, and lots of people are going to be discussing what it all means.  But one key takeaway is that, with the gatekeepers shrinking, disappearing, and having a reputation for less credibility, it’s more important for companies and groups with stories to tell to make them relevant to everyone, not just to journalists.  There will always be writers and editors of some sort who help contextualize and distribute information.  But more and more, news seekers are going to be going straight to the sources and making their own decisions about the usefulness and credibility of the news.

What this means for public relations professionals and marketers is (among other things) that content has to be less buried behind corporate-speak and clumsy, made-up quotes; and made more engaging, personal and  — you guessed it! — social.  And it has to be made available via the channels and outlets people are actually using:  Twitter, Facebook, and the growing networks of sites with user-generated content.  People talk about and care about your brand, and if you don’t find them and engage with them via their preferred outlets, you risk PR and marketing disasters.


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