LETTER FROM AMERICA: Even 'harmless' lies can tarnish the PR industry - The PR stunt that kickstarted the success of auction website eBay should be a source of shame for PROs, says US commentator Paul Holmes

In June 1998, Newsday ran a story on auction website eBay. It was a touching tale, giving a human-interest flavour to a spectacular business success.

It told how founder Pierre Omidyar launched the firm to provide a more efficient way for his fiancee, Pam Wesley, to trade Pez candy dispensers.

Within weeks, the story appeared in several major media, including Business Week, The Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. It even found its way into a speech by former V-P Al Gore, who asked: 'Who would have imagined that someone who simply wanted to find other people interested in collecting Pez candy dispensers would become eBay?'

The only problem with the story - a problem that clearly did not concern eBay's PR machine - was that it was a lie.

Adam Cohen's new book, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, reveals the falsehood was initially perpetrated by eBay's first PR manager, Mary Lou Song. In the book, Song - now the firm's senior product manager (community) - explains how she lied to the media to drum up interest as reporters were not interested in the truth.

I have no doubt many of those 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 making things up.

No-one expects PR people to observe the same standards of veracity as reporters, so the prestigious Medill School of Journalism has presented alumna Song with a Merit Award for 'achievement in a profession or field of endeavour'.

Despite the revelation Song lied, the school won't be asking for it back.

If I was a journalism graduate of Medill, I'd think seriously before I made another donation (if I was a PR graduate, I'd be too embarrassed to show my face on campus), but chances are most reporters will simply shrug their shoulders. If they didn't want to be lied to, they wouldn't be talking to PR people in the first place. It's not like this kind of deceit can make them 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 her own attitude: 'I use my journalism experience creatively, helping discover and share stories within our community that define www.ebay.com.'

And if she can't discover them, well what's the harm in just making them up?

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