Tuesday, November 8, 2011

More "news site" troubles

Update Nov. 12: Central Basin has instructed its communications consultant to stop using a website where their stories were appearing under apparently fake bylines. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the water district believed the reporters were real and only became aware recently that the authors may be fictional.

In a statement issued Nov. 9, Central Basin said, among other things:
"Central Basin was not aware of issues related to the backgrounds
of the individuals whose names appeared alongside the stories and had no knowledge of their
biographies until it was brought to our attention, at which point the News Hawks website lost its
Google Certification and Central Basin’s vendor discontinued using the website.

Credit the LA Times for not giving up on a story.

As much as I hate to see a water agency that does great work remain in the newspaper's cross hairs, and as much as I hate to see someone in public relations getting slammed in print....the public relations profession needs to take notice and learn from this one.

And, the water district may want to ask for help from PRSA.

The latest Times story about the Central Basin water district of Southern California is an update to their previous article about the water district's effort to secure positive coverage. The water district has been in bitter battles with another water district, which also is using deception on the web in attacking Central Basin.

As this blog wrote when the original story first broke, paying for positive coverage is full of danger.

The key issue remains disclosure...even more so with the latest Times article.

The latest Times story raises significant questions about the authors of "news" articles that appeared on a "news" website (that was subsequently removed by Google in its news streams).

These reporters may be phony.

The appearance from the story is that the public relations consultant hired by the district used various fake names, bios and photos for articles that he wrote for this "news" website on behalf of his client.

This certainly raises more damaging questions about the water district's effort to counter attacks by using some of the same misleading efforts they revile. Knowing the Times was about to do another article, the water district issued a statement about four days before the article was published. The water district challenged the Times to "see how" their response would be used in the article.

The problem with the statement is that it deals with the underlying issue of the battle between the two water districts, but fails to address the bigger, more damaging issue of credibility and disclosure.

While Central Basin may feel it has won some arguments with the Times about who exactly paid for what and how the website where positive news stories appeared was created, the latest story continues to raise damaging questions for the district.

Perhaps the best next step for Central Basin is to issue a statement that it has further reviewed its contract for public outreach services and conducted its own investigation to either (a) conclude its consultant has performed to the highest ethical standards or (b) it is ending its contract because the opposite was true.

Then the next step would be for Central Basin to develop and adopt a policy for public communications and code of conduct.

PRSA, Los Angeles would be glad to help. PRSA has done it before for other public agencies, including FEMA.

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