‘An egregious breach of ethical standards’

The Public Relations Society of America speaks out against a scheme by the Central Basin Municipal Water District of California, in which it paid a PR firm to create a fake news site with positive coverage.

Here’s some public relations irony for you:

The Central Basin Municipal Water District of California seeks positive online news coverage. Its hope is that when you Google the organization’s name or other relevant keywords, readers and reporters will find positive news coverage.

There’s the old-fashioned way of making that happen, which entails earning such coverage.

Then there’s the News Hawks Review way—where, quite simply, you pay for positive news coverage on a website that looks like a real news site and is indexed by Google as such. In fact, if you’re Central Basin, you pay $200,000 of taxpayers’ money for this positive news coverage.

And the irony? They got news coverage in a major publication, all right. Positive it was not. The Los Angeles Times has a story uncovering this mess.

The News Hawks Review is affiliated with the PR firm Coghlan Consulting Group, which is under contract with Central Basin. The agreement between Central Basin’s public affairs office and Coghlan Consulting promises promotional stories “written in the image of real news.”

This isn’t brand journalism, in which companies employ journalists to produce content for their Web properties that are clearly labeled as such. It’s brand journalism’s mutant cousin. The News Hawks Review doesn’t disclose the agreement with Central Basin, not on the home page, not on the About Us page. Here’s what the About Us page says:

“NewsHawksReivew.com is an Internet News Site with up to date news articles. If it’s news we do our best to report it. Our genuine desire is to report first, Hard News, second, Breaking News and then Feature News. We will do investigative reporting whenever we can. Our news articles are written by experienced and highly knowledgeable staff of reporters and writers.”

Sources in the L.A. Times article call Central Basin’s move a “serious breach of trust.” Those quoted in News Hawks stories say they were misled into thinking they were speaking with an independent news organization.

In the agreement with Central Basin, Ed Coughlan touts his services thusly: “Because the website that we would be placing this is part of the Google News family, these stories would show up as news stories … on the Internet.”

(Will the Google News family please excommunicate this member?)

Naturally, Coughlan wouldn’t comment. However, Valerie Howard, the district’s public affairs manager, said that the news stories have resulted in a “huge spike” in traffic to Central Basin’s main website and that they’re far more effective than traditional press releases.

Now that the L.A. Times has written an exposé about Central Basin, it will probably see even more traffic—although not the kind it desires.

The Public Relations Society of America has spoken out against Central Basin’s tactics. Marisa Vallbona, a PRSA board member in Los Angeles, submitted a letter to the editor at the L.A. Times. The organization passed that letter along to PR Daily.

In it, Vallbona writes:

The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create fake news disguised as independent media coverage is an egregious breach of ethical standards for public relations. No matter if the effort has produced a ‘huge spike’ in traffic to Central Basin’s main website, as its public affairs manager asserted, the initiative still flouts the public’s right to be properly informed of the motivations, biases and intent of the information it is presented.

As a public relations professional, I am concerned with the message this effort sends to taxpayers. Central Basin seems oblivious to the fact that by producing its own news content on a website that is presented as an independent news organization, it is operating in a disingenuous manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.

Google rightly frowns upon efforts to disguise public relations as independent news, and so does the Public Relations Society of America, which espouses ethical communications practices via its Code of Ethics. We advocate for businesses and organizations to preserve the free flow of unprejudiced information. Central Basin’s News Hawks Review website is the antithesis of this ethical communications tenet.

September, by the way, is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America.

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