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Public Relations Tips: Dealing with Online Vandalism and Journalistic Fraud

I recently received a breathless call recently from a former colleague. My friend explained that an entry on Wikipedia concerning his company had been “vandalized” and that the company was scrambling to come up with new copy. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, a starting point for daily research. The content on Wikipedia, however, is generated, edited, and policed by users such as you and me, so accuracy is not always paramount. More so, opinion is often interjected into entries which, on the surface, should be purely fact-based. Online vandalism can often turn into public relations headache for companies or public figures.

Most of the discrepancies, disputes, and acts of online vandalism that occur on Wikipedia revolve around topics such as politicians, current events, and actual controversies. Nonetheless, my friend was the victim of vandalism due to an unhappy costumer.

For years, public relations departments have tracked media mentions of their companies and clients in an effort not just to gather clips, but also to ensure accurate portrayals and correct facts. The rise of personal publishing has meant that public relations departments now track blogs for online vandalism  as well. Considering the influence of Wikipedia, PR people should add the site to the list of online resources that need to be checked on a weekly basis.

To learn how to deal with online vandalism on Wikipedia, see the site’s page on the topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Vandalism.

Journalistic fraud happens to the best of us, and that includes famed journalist Jane Pauley. Several years ago, Pauley claimed that an employee of DeWitt, a publishing firm, misrepresented herself as an employee of the New York Times. The DeWitt employee, claiming to be a journalist, interviewed Pauley, and the subsequent story ended up on the cover of an advertising supplement that appeared in an October 2005 edition of the New York Times Magazine.

Pauley, if she was indeed the victim of journalistic fraud, is not the first person to believe that someone on the other end of the phone was a journalist. I receive a few calls each month from people who claim to be journalists; usually they’re individual investors too cheap to buy my company’s newsletters or research. One guy actually claimed he wrote for my old newspaper; when I busted him, he said he made a mistake and actually wrote for a different newspaper.

If you don’t think you’ll find yourself in this situation, think again. Years ago, and well before I was ever a working journalist, I settled a dispute with a company by calling its public relations rep and claiming to be a journalist working on a story. I also scored free concert tickets on more than one occasion by claiming to be working on a story for a British music publication. I would never pull the first move again, but I passed on the advice for years, telling friends that you could settle problems by telling public relations reps that you were a working journalist.

If there is an actual doubt in your mind, the best way to ensure that someone is a journalist is simple: Ask them for the main number at their publication, and then call them back through the switchboard. If they’re freelancers, ask them for links to past stories or simply Google their name.

The first method is tried and true; I got the idea from All The President’s Men. In the movie–I don’t recall if it was in the book–Bob Woodward calls a source who then becomes flustered and hangs up. The source calls Woodward back through the main switchboard at the Washington Post, saying he wasn’t sure if Woodward was actually a Washington Post reporter. Considering the delicacy of the situation portrayed in the movie, I would have done the same.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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