Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Denis Wolcott, APR, of the PRSA Los Angeles Chapter. The post is an update to a previous commentary piece he wrote for PRSAY about the ethical concerns of a Los Angeles-area water district agency engaging in fake news production practices to secure positive media coverage.
As much as I hate to see a water agency that does great work remain in the newspaper’s cross hairs, and as much as I hate to see someone in public relations getting slammed in print . . . the public relations profession needs to take notice and learn from this one.
And, the water district may want to ask for help from PRSA.
The latest Times story about the Central Basin water district of Southern California is an update to its previous article about the water district’s effort to secure positive coverage. The water district has been in bitter battles with another water district, which also is using deception on the web in attacking Central Basin.
As this blog wrote when the original story first broke, paying for positive coverage is full of danger.
The key issue remains disclosure … even more so with the latest Times article.
The latest Times story raises significant questions about the authors of “news” articles that appeared on a “news” website (that was subsequently removed by Google in its news streams).
These reporters may be phony.
The appearance from the story is that the public relations consultant hired by the district used various fake names, bios and photos for articles that he wrote for this “news” website on behalf of his client.
This certainly raises more damaging questions about the water district’s effort to counter attacks by using some of the same misleading efforts they revile. Knowing The Times was about to do another article, the water district issued a statement about four days before the article was published. The water district challenged The Times to “see how” its response would be used in the article.
The problem with the statement is that it deals with the underlying issue of the battle between the two water districts, but fails to address the bigger, more damaging issue of credibility and disclosure.
While Central Basin may feel it has won some arguments with The Times about who exactly paid for what and how the website where positive news stories appeared was created, the latest story continues to raise damaging questions for the district.
Perhaps the best next step for Central Basin is to issue a statement that it has further reviewed its contract for public outreach services and conducted its own investigation to either (a) conclude its consultant has performed to the highest ethical standards; or (b) it is ending its contract because the opposite was true.
Then the next step would be for Central Basin to develop and adopt a policy for public communications and code of conduct.
PRSA, Los Angeles would be glad to help. PRSA has done it before for other public agencies, including FEMA.