Online footprints leave indelible marks

It's been a bad week for Vocus' press release distribution service PRWeb, which on Monday distributed a fake story about Google supposedly acquiring Wi-Fi provider ICOA for $400 million.

It's been a bad week for Vocus' press release distribution service PRWeb, which on Monday distributed a fake story about Google supposedly acquiring Wi-Fi provider ICOA for $400 million.

The release was picked up by credible media outlets such as TechCrunch and the Associated Press (of which more later) and ICOA's stock surged.

Vocus initially defended its practices and the company's small business evangelist Peter Shankman told PRWeek: “Our job is to be the conduit for a company that wants to get its message out there. Our job is not to tell the company whether its message is right or not.”

But senior thought leaders in the industry – and members of PRWeek's Power List – disagreed. Fleishman-Hillard president and global CEO Dave Senay, incoming chair of the Council of Public Relations Firms, told us: “We're not going to use a service that has a track record of putting out less-than-credible information” and “PRWeb expresses what it stands for by the products it distributes.”

And Chevron's well-respected GM of public affairs Dave Samson, commenting on our story, said: “The dissemination of fraudulent and misleading information over various communications wire services is a growing and troubling issue. If you ask these services to show you the specific criteria they use to validate the veracity of what they are distributing, they have none. They say it's not their role or responsibility to challenge the legitimacy of the information they are advancing. This argument undermines the integrity of their offerings.”

Yesterday, Vocus' CEO Rick Rudman saw the way the story was unfolding and finally came out and apologized. He said: “We're sorry for any frustration or embarrassment we caused to the people who rely on the news releases we distribute, and we've already made changes to do better going forward.”

He emphasized, as did other wire services PRWeek contacted this week, the procedures PRWeb is supposed to have in place to avoid fraud, such as editors reviewing news releases submitted for distribution, checking content and sender authenticity, personal interaction with customers, and additional precautions for releases that contain ticker symbols.

Clearly those checks fell down seriously in the ICOA case, but this is only one part of the story. Search Engine Land editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan highlighted other dubious releases that get through the PRWeb net, safeguards or not, including barely disguised advertisements for websites selling drugs such as Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra without prescriptions.

Rudman claims there is a market for pretty much every type of information and said in his apology: “I may not be interested in attending an event in Beverly Hills for a new plastic surgery procedure, but there are people who are.”

This may well be true. There are lots of people who are interested in prescription-free access to erectile dysfunction drugs. There are lots of people on the web who are interested in penis-extension products or pornography. That doesn't mean a credible company should align itself with such activities and, even if only vicariously, give it its blessing by distributing the information under its banner.

But of as much concern for me is the way credible media outlets were so easily duped into publishing the ICOA story.

Let's go back to the Associated Press for a moment. AP is the journalist's bible. It sets down the style guidelines to which we adhere in our daily work. It establishes codes of practice for reporters and editors to comply with on crucial subjects such as story sourcing, off-the-record conversations, conventions for dealing with background material, and so on.

It is also, of course, a newsfeed in its own right, providing acres of material for lots of newspaper and other media outlets that implicitly trust its judgment. At the time of writing, the Google/ICOA hoax release story is still live on some websites that take AP's news feed.

And this isn't the first time it has been duped. Last year, a hoax release produced by the Yes Men activist group purporting to represent GE got through its systems. To see such a bastion of journalistic integrity associated with such bad practice is troubling and, frankly, depressing.

Other newspapers, such as the Houston Chronicle and Sacramento Bee, are running news and press release feeds from wire services on their websites that appear to be completely automated and bereft of any human intervention or oversight before they are made live. It's a sign of reduced journalistic resources, but it's also short-sighted thinking.

As many brands and corporations have already discovered, in the rush to respond immediately and to keep the content factory running in a 24/7 news environment, it is worth remembering that an online footprint is very difficult to cover up. The potential damage to reputation is long-lasting, possibly even more so for the media outlet than the wire service.

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