How PR tricks journalists into creating fake news

“It’s been three months since I’ve written fake news.”

That was the confessional-style statement made by Don Fluckinger, an executive editor with TechTarget, during the recent panel discussion I participated in on Fake News in B2B during the ASBPE New England Chapter’s 2017 Awards Banquet in Wellesley, Mass.

It was a tongue-in-cheek statement in that he never wrote the sort of fake news stories you’re probably thinking of, but false news of another sort.

You see, Fluckinger is actually a superb journalist. He’s written for trade publications since 1990. He’s an energetic reporter with high standards of quality and admirable journalistic integrity. I know this because I’ve worked with him and recently hired him back to TechTarget because of those qualities.

He had left journalism a few years ago for a stint in public relations. Like many journalists, he was curious about a PR job and, of course, it paid more. But working for a PR agency meant spinning stories to promote clients’ products and services, then pitching those “exclusives” to editors — especially cub reporters who didn’t know fluff from fact.

“Believe it or not, PR people, at least in the tech domain, write fake news. This isn’t fake news in the sense of complete falsehoods such as ‘Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s,’ but it isn’t really actual news, either,” he said. “They have a nice name for it: ‘Thought leadership.’”

This “thought leadership” content is typically part of a PR campaign around new products or services a company plans to release. Six months or so in advance, a PR rep like Fluckinger would ghostwrite a piece, then publish it as if the CEO or another high-ranking executive at the company wrote it to highlight the urgent market need for a certain technology. Then, surprise! Six months later the company delivers a product to meet that exact market need, Fluckinger explained.

Skip the spin dialectic

“We’d hit up media outlets big and small, legit and sketchy, asking them to run the article. Often, low-level blogs would pick something up first because they needed content to attract traffic, which was how they earned their revenue,” he said. “Asian and European sites, often totally legit trade publications, would take most anything we wrote as long as the client was selling stuff in those markets or at least participating in industry conferences in their neck of the woods.”

As the PR-generated story gained traction on Google, more legitimate publications would pick up with minor rewrites of the original article because the buzz would be too loud to risk missing, he explained.

Sometimes this cycle spins around something that’s truly newsworthy, like when a customer demands a certain feature or service. Other times, though, PR simply gins up a paid “market research report” and points to a quote in a trade magazine that seems to validate a product’s legitimacy. That, Fluckinger said, is fake news.

Stirring up this type of “news” for clients was a lather, rinse and repeat process he simply couldn’t continue doing — especially after seeing how fake news impacted the 2016 election cycle, while legitimate media sources came under attack.

“I realized I was part of the problem and not the solution,” he said. “I was on the wrong side of the fence. I had to come back to B2B journalism and rejoin the fight. That was part of the motivation for quitting my PR job.”

His raw perspective as journalist-turned-PR rep and back again provided insight to the 30-some ASBPE Award event attendees, who learned there’s more “fake” news in B2B than they originally thought.

Of course, to say all PR is fake news is unfair. Press releases certainly exist explaining the facts of a situation or announcing what’s to come, he said. However, reporters and editors must vet the data they receive and always question the PR person about what they get out of it, Fluckinger said.

The question every editor must ask when being pitched an article or an exploratory interview is, “where is this ‘thought leadership’ leading me to?” he said.

Valid, unbiased research hard to find

Also on the panel was Roy Harris, former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and senior editor of CFO magazine, who authored the book Pulitzer’s Gold. Roy’s depth of experience in journalism allowed him to highlight how far trustworthiness has fallen over the years, especially around government surveys and studies, which reporters once considered reliable enough to buttress their work.

See companion article in this issue: “Fake or misleading news creep into B2B more than you want to admit.

Indeed, more and more, we see that corporate money is behind published studies, which means the results of those studies aren’t exactly virtuous. Perhaps data was removed because it didn’t support the need for the survey sponsor’s products or service. Or the survey questions may have been written in a way to ensure favorable results. It’s a problem I’m keenly aware of to the point that whenever I receive a new “study” in my inbox, I scour it for sponsorship info. If the money trail leads to a company with a stake in the results, I hit delete.

Maintaining high standards for what we publish and being transparent about our reporting processes is more important than ever because readers’ skepticism is at an all-time high. It is, indeed, the “post-truth era” where many readers are skeptical of facts and may even prefer to absorb “alternative facts,” if it fits in with their beliefs. Readers’ confirmation bias exacerbates the problem, as there’s plenty of false news to support other fake stories, keeping the cycle alive.

The frustrating part of this is that you may be a by-the-book journalist who prides yourself on your fairness, balance and commitment to delivering unbiased information to your readers. As I told ASBPE attendees during the panel discussion, I once wrote a news story about a company on my beat that included information about unfavorable aspects of the company’s technology. A reader commented on the article, accusing me of being paid by the company’s competitor to write a negative story.

That comment was deeply insulting; it was like taking a bullet. The only thing I could do was deny the false assumption, explain my company’s editorial process, and hope other readers did not have the same assumptions this reader did. Unfortunately, plenty more people take the view that all media are untrustworthy — consumer press and B2B alike.

One of the takeaways from the panel discussion on how to overcome the depressing trend of reader mistrust is to be transparent about editorial ethics, news gathering practices and your staffs’ backgrounds. Know your freelancers, too. They must disclose any associations with companies they write about.

See companion article in this issue: “12 ways to keep your publication trustworthy.

Ultimately, we must be skeptical of the sources of the information provided to us and do due diligence to ensure we aren’t re-publishing false content. It’s time to encourage true enterprise reporting more than ever. Maintain ethical standards against the pressure from advertisers and marketers, and above all else, remember to serve your readers.

Bridget Botelho, a member of the ASBPE Ethics Committee, is editorial director of TechTarget’s business information and applications media group, which covers topics including big data, business analytics, content management, CRM, data management and Salesforce. She has also served as a reporter, editor and news director for the publication. Before joining TechTarget in 2007, she worked as a reporter for daily and weekly newspapers. She graduated from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in 2002.

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