Friday, September 16, 2011

Troubled Water: The Wrong Way to Better News Coverage

Every PR person wants positive news coverage of their organization. It's sort of what we do for a living. There are more ways than ever to get your stories out into the world. Some of those methods are good. Some are sleazy. The LA Times ran a story this week about the rather disreputable way the Central Basin Municipal Water District has gone about generating positive "news" stories about its organization. And it is a cautionary tale for communicators.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District serves about two million people in California near Los Angeles. It's having a tough go of things. The District exists in the second largest media market in the country and there is huge competition for limited space in traditional media outlets. The District is also involved in a nasty lawsuit against the Southern California Water Replenishment District. The Replenishment District has a blog site that tends to post negative stories about Central Basin. It makes sense that the Central Basin Municipal folks want to get into the game and counter the bad news.

So, the board of Central Basin Municipal hired a consulting firm to write fluffy stories disguised as legitimate news. The firm used a website called News Hawks Review to post the stories. Google listed the site as a legitimate news site, which the consulting firm mentioned prominently in its pitch. The site is operated by a person connected to the consulting firm. There is no transparency of any of these connections.

And therein lies the problem. The Central Basin folks have every right to pay a consulting firm to write these stories and even put up a site to host them. They can use whatever key words and search engine optimization techniques to move the stories higher in searches. Just be clear about who you are and the origin of the stories.

Google felt the same way. Less than 24 hours after the first story ran in the Times, the search engine giant removed the News Hawks Review from its list of legitimate news sites.

Why is this man smiling? 
Tony Marino, the executive editor of News Hawks Review posted an open email on the site lamenting how the LA Times is picking on his "fly speck" "dinky little online nickel and dime news channel." If true, Mr. Marino needs work on his pitching skills.

Marino sounds upset that he got his hand caught in the unethical cookie jar. He's a bit hyperbolic, too. He claims the juggernaut that is the LA Times went after his site "with a biblical vengeance not seen since "Shock n Awe."

Dude, it was two stories. The Times ran more stories on the new Kardashian clothing line.

The folks at Central Basin Municipal Water made a bad call. Whether their motivation was to counter negative press, get good coverage or influence a future jury pool it backfired. They appear thin-skinned, inept and unethical. If they want to pay someone to write about their lawsuit against the other water people, they can knock themselves out. Hire whomever you'd like to get that done. Better yet, they could make good use of their own Facebook page. It's currently pathetic.

Remember that transparency is the coin of the realm in PR today. There are no shortcuts to a happy ending. Just ask LeBron James. Whenever and wherever the story posts, you better respect your audience enough to tell them who's paying the bills.

Bill Salvin

Note: The Central Basin Municipal Water District sent a letter to the LA Times asking for a retraction of the articles. Even this is disingenuous. The letter claims they've only paid $70,000 to the consulting firm not $200,000 as claimed in the Times. The paper gets it right because documents show the Water District has approved expenditures up to $189,750. That is roundable up to $200,000 as long as my third grade math teacher taught me how to round up properly.

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