Faking it

Faking it
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Fake PR can lead to tongue-in-cheek tales and blatant sarcasm – but often it’s far from funny. Lucy Clark speaks to PR professionals to discover the ugly side of faking it

When an anti-mining campaigner sent out a press release posing as ANZ, what followed must have exceeded his wildest dreams.

Last month, Front Line Action on Coal protestor Jonathan Moylan saw his hoax press statement published by several media outlets, including Australian Association Press.

Moylan’s statement claimed that ANZ had pulled $1.6bn in funding for a coal mine in New South Wales due to its environmental impact. The big news sent investors into a panic – and prompted them to dump shares.

For Front Line Action on Coal, it was job done. More than $300m was temporarily knocked off the value of the coal mining company in question – Nathan Tinkler’s Whitehaven Coal.

Whitehaven became the third company in the last six months to be hit hard by fake PR notices. David Jones’ shares climbed after false rumours were spread on email of a takeover, and mining services company Macmahon Holdings ended up suspending trading when an email chain circulated that reported a takeover.

Andrew Ure, managing director of OgilvyEarth, suggests: “If this had happened 10 years ago, people would have assumed it was a hoax. The fact that people are willing to believe the press release is really interesting, in terms of what consumers expect these companies to do. Ten years ago, people would not have thought ANZ would worry about this sort of thing.”

But what implications does a bit of (bad) fake PR have, apart from the obvious, short-lived financial ones?

Andrea Kerekes, managing partner at Access PR, says: “This is a wake-up call to companies. Technology is making it easier to do something like this. Staying on top of Twitter and Facebook is one thing, but traditional media is incredibly powerful. A lot of brands over-focus on social media, possibly to the detriment of traditional communications.

“Any company that does not have a really tight media crisis communications plan is making a big mistake.”

Ure states that organisations must be pro-active in their PR and in showing that they are ethical.

“We are in an age of transparency, due to social media,” he says. “Companies have to do what they say and they need to be on the front foot in using PR to build trust with consumers. Once genies are out of the bottle, 90% of the damage has been done. As a company, you can’t just believe in being ethical, you have to communicate it.”

Thrive PR’s managing director, Leilani Abels, wants to see protection for business from hoaxes such as this. She says: “There needs to be guidelines and measures in place. I certainly believe that when it comes to this fake news release, there needs to be accountability.  The hoaxer should be held to account. There needs to be measures in place to protect businesses from situations like this.

“PR as an industry has a reputation to uphold. That kind of behaviour doesn’t do anything for the professionals that operate with the highest of standards in our industry. It certainly gives PR a bad name.”

But Kerekes does not agree that such incidents reflect badly on the PR industry.

“I don’t think this gives PR a bad name,” she says. “My initial reaction was that the hoaxer must have done an incredibly good job. PR is always going to suffer from people calling any hoax a PR stunt.”

She also believes that what followed, with the ANZ setting the story straight promptly, and effectively, reflected well on PR.

“I don’t think there is any blame to be laid on anybody,” she suggests. “The ANZ did well – it reacted very quickly and to-the-point, stating immediately that it was a hoax. They didn’t use convoluted language, and they got on the phones, on email and on social media to set the story straight.”

Abels agrees: “The ANZ handled it well. Businesses need to have an issues management and crisis management plan in place. Brands need to be very aware of the potential of this kind of thing happening to them.”

But where does the responsibility lie? With journalists or with brands?

Kerekes argues that fact-checking by journalists is crucial. “I saw two different reports – one said that only one journalist called to check the facts, another said that several did. Either way, that’s not enough to have called to check something so monumental,” she says.

But Abels disagrees: “It’s to the detriment of the industry if media need to check every single press release, it’s just not possible. Accountability needs to be held on the dispatch side of things. When there are serious consequences to a story being reported, there needs to be a certain level of checking – but it’s not feasible for journalists to double check every fact.”

Ure agrees, in part, with both Kerekes and Abels. He says: “There are increasing pressures on journalists’ time, but it’s a journalist’s responsibility to check facts and take reasonable measures. Perhaps the definition of ‘reasonable measures’ is changing.”

Whether big impact or small joke, fake PR is here to stay.

“More and more companies will be the victims of hoaxes,” claims Ure. “People need to believe in your credentials if the hoax is not going to gain traction. The onus is on the brand to show what they are doing to maintain their reputation and to explain their values.”

“Hoaxes like this are not going to stop,” concludes Kerekes. “It will be interesting to see if the hoaxer in this case is charged with anything. The police took away his mobile and laptop, but no-one has ever been charged in Australia over something like this.” 

This article first appeared in B&T magazine on February 1.

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