Ethics Thought Leadership

Is PRWeb Really to Blame for Google Hoax?

When I began my career in public relations (and I won’t say when that was), publicists and media relations specialists longed for the day when they could reach audiences with their clients’ or company’s news without first having to go through a media filter.

Eventually, their wish came true; first through social media, then through online services, such as PRWeb, that disseminate news and information directly to a broad, if indiscriminate, audience. (Disclosure: PRWeb is owned by Vocus, a corporate partner of PRSA).

PRWeb presents itself as “a quick, affordable and easy [way] to promote your business or cause, reach people looking for businesses like yours, generate coverage from bloggers, local and national media, [and] get found in search engine results!” Think of it; no pitch calls, no opposing views from competitors included in stories and, certainly, no rejections from surly editors and reporters!

In essence, PRWeb allows public relations professionals to have their news published — verbatim — by a broad range of news sources. Depending on the level of service selected, just about anyone can use PRWeb to distribute news and information to “every major search engine, 250,000 subscribers, thousands of news sites and 30,000 journalists and bloggers.”

We can debate whether or not this is a good thing for the profession another time, but there’s another problem. Sometimes, people with bad intent use PRWeb to publish information that is knowingly false or misleading. It’s happened with distribution services before, perhaps most famously in 2000, when an Internet Wire employee used the service to manipulate the stock price of technology company Emulex.

It happened again Monday, when PRWeb distributed what turned out to be a fake press release purporting to announce that Google had acquired ICOA, a U.S. company that builds and operates WiFi hotspots in public places such as airports, for $400 million. And judging from the reaction, it has many in the news and public relations professionals wringing their hands over the unintended consequences that such technological advances sometimes bring.

In a statement, which TechCrunch called “acknowledgement of sorts,” PRWeb admitted transmitting a press release that was fraudulent; that is, not issued or authorized by ICOA. The statement goes on to say that parent company Vocus “reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day,” a claim that Search Engine Land and others seem to question.

It’s quick and easy to pile on PRWeb for its failure to have adequate safeguards in place to prevent this type of event; or for its tepid statement, in which the company attempts to absolve itself by saying such missteps occur “across all of the major wire services”; or, as TechCrunch notes, for leaving a link to the release live on its site for hours after the news was debunked as being false.

Some of this is valid, of course. But let’s face it: the problem originated with the circumvention of PRWeb’s safeguards. And people with malice of forethought will almost always find a way around such safeguards. For every technological “problem,” there is an equal or opposite technological way to circumvent it.

And for that reason, I think some of the blame being heaped on PRWeb is misplaced.

Certainly, Google News had a role in perpetuating the story. But according to The Atlantic, Google News is “algorithmically generated,” which means that software programs — not news editors or reporters  — decide what news is presented and how. No doubt the software is incapable of detecting false information.

But, then, what’s the excuse of the news publishers who ran this information? According to the Financial Times, the fake Google acquisition was reported by AP and carried on the websites of papers such as the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Houston Chronicle. It also was picked up by some of the most widely read blogs covering the technology industry.

Didn’t anyone at those publications find it questionable that the deal would have valued ICOA at approximately 470 times its market value of $850,000, as Reuters reports? If that were true, as All Things D notes, Google would have been paying a premium amounting to more than 470 times its most recent price. Surely this should have raised a red flag for most experienced financial or technology journalists.

Finally, I fault Google and ICOA themselves.

It’s difficult to say who knew what when, but according to the Financial Times, the claim that Google had bought ICOA appeared on PRWeb at about 10 a.m. The Financial Times notes that ICOA did not immediately respond to questions about who had written the release, or what checks were made to verify that it had been authorized by ICOA.

It wasn’t until ICOA was reached for comment by journalists checking the “news,” according to SFGate, that the company’s chief financial officer denied the acquisition had occurred, which the company’s CEO later confirmed.

It’s hard to believe that companies like Google and, to a lesser degree, ICOA, don’t have hundreds of in-house and agency public relations professionals monitoring and reporting on each day’s news. I mean, doesn’t Google at least monitor Google News for Google mentions?

Important to remember, too, is the obligation of those professionals to serve the journalist community, which means helping them ferret out the facts and get their stories correct. The PRSA Code of Ethics requires PRSA members 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.”

Given the media’s fascination with Google, this whole thing could have been quashed by 10:15 a.m. As it was, most news sources took at least several hours to update their stories with news of the hoax. And by then, the damage was done.

As All Things D notes in its coverage, “the situation bears all the markings of an attempt to ‘pump and dump’ the shares of a thinly traded over-the-counter stock. Whoever sent the press release likely counted on it being propagated by journalists who wouldn’t bother to confirm whether it was true or not, so that traders would bid the price up. Whatever the price, the shares tripled or quadrupled in value as the false news made its way around the Web.”

In the end, it wasn’t just investors caught on the wrong end of the run up of ICOA’s stock price who were hurt by this hoax; several corporate reputations were hurt right along with it.

Call me old fashioned, but there’s something to be said for the days when you could actually trust that someone, somewhere, had read, vetted and, you know, actually fact-checked the news.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA is 2012 Chair and CEO of PRSA.

3 Comments

  • Ah, Gerry . . . the unfair shots aren’t aimed just at PRWeb, unfortunately.

    Here’s what Jack Shafer, a veteran media critic who should know better, says in his Reuters blog post on this kerfuffle:”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 I’ve suggested directly to Arthur Yann, I sure hope PRSA pushes back by citing the Code of Ethics upheld by many “people who write the genuine press releases.” 

    It’s unfair and flat-out wrong to claim “a good many of those genuine press releases aren’t exactly dishonest,” as journalists who appreciate them know.   .  

    Alan Stamm | Birmingham, MI | @APStamm:disqus 

  • This is an interesting case study.  It brings up a valid point, that there’s a lot of info online and you can’t assume that it’s all accurate.  That’s why it’s always important to fact check and get info straight from the source when possible.  

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