In June of 1998, Newsday ran a story on the origins of internet auction site eBay. It was a touching tale, giving a heartwarming human-interest flavor to one of the most spectacular business success stories of the 1990s. It told how founder Pierre Omidyar had launched the company to provide a more efficient way for his fiancee, Pam Wesley, to trade Pez candy dispensers.
Within a few weeks, the same story had appeared in several major media, including BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News. It even found its way into a speech by Al Gore, who wanted to know, "Who would have imagined that someone who simply wanted to find other people who were also interested in collecting Pez candy dispensers would become eBay?"
The only problem with the story - which did not concern eBay's PR machine - was that it was a lie.
Adam Cohen's new book, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, reveals that the falsehood was perpetrated by eBay's first employee, and first PR manager, Mary Lou Song. In the book, Song - now senior product manager, community - says she decided to lie to the media to drum up interest because reporters were not interested in the truth.
I have no doubt that many reading this column consider Song's mendacity "harmless. But in recent years, reporters have been fired for creating composite characters for their columns - a practice equally "harmless," unless you hold to the apparently quaint belief that truth has some sort of intrinsic value that trumps the expediency of making things up. Sports coaches have been fired for lying on their resumes.
Of course, no one expects PR people to observe the same standards of veracity as reporters, so the prestigious Medill School of Journalism recently presented Song with an alumna Merit Award for "high achievement in a profession or field of endeavor. Despite the revelation that Song lied to the media, the school won't attempt to uphold any ethical standard by asking for the award back.
If I was a journalism graduate of Medill, I'd think very seriously before I made another donation (if I was a PR graduate, I'd be too embarrassed to show my face on campus again), but chances are most reporters will shrug their shoulders at the story. If they didn't want to be lied to, they wouldn't talk to PR people in the first place. It's not like this kind of deceit can make them any more cynical about the role of PR "professionals or the level of honesty one should expect from corporate America.
Meanwhile, Song's interview with Inside Medill News reveals, probably unintentionally, her own attitude: "I use my journalism experience creatively for the company, helping discover and share the stories within our community that define eBay."
And if she can't discover them, well, what's the harm in just making them up?