Little White Lies Can Lead to Big Problems in Public Relations

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In the world of journalism, every so often a reader will send in a tip that is worth a reporter’s time. Usually the reader has uncovered something about a company or individual that isn’t quite right. And that discovery can turn into a public relations nightmare for the company or individual in question, especially if it involves lying. Let the following story be an example an example of how a little white lie can quickly snowball into the worst kind of publicity.

Several years back, a reader tipped me off onto a story: “Please look at the news links I’ve provided and tell me if Bill Gates uses a BlackBerry.” A BlackBerry is a wireless email device made by a Canadian firm named Research In Motion (RIM). Bill Gates, in case you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere for the past two decades, is the co-founder of Microsoft.

I thought the reader’s question was odd. Who cares if Bill Gates uses a BlackBerry? Then I took the time to check out the news stories that the reader had submitted. For several years RIM had been using Bill Gates as an example of a high-profile person who used their product. Former Vice President Al Gore was also mentioned as a BlackBerry user in many stories, usually wrapped around an incident involving the 2000 Presidential election. Bill Gates’ use of a BlackBerry was never quantified though, and as the reader pointed out to me, he didn’t appear to use one.

How did this myth begin? On RIM’s website the company had posted a series of press clippings. One undated Wall Street Journal story states the following:

“Al Gore has one. So does Bill Gates. It’s standard issue for attorneys at Cravath Swaine & Moore, a prestigious corporate law firm, and widely used by investment bankers at Merrill Lynch & Co., the nation’s biggest brokerage firm. It’s the BlackBerry. And since its introduction nearly three years ago, the handheld corporate email device has amassed many high-profile devotees and become an indispensable tool for the mobile professional.”

Ok, so the Wall Street Journal reported that Bill Gates uses a BlackBerry. There was no source given for the information so one must assume that either Gates or RIM had told the writer that Gates was a BlackBerry user.

In December of 2001, Forbes, in its Executive Gift Guide section, featured the BlackBerry and mentioned that Gates was “said” to be a “devoted” user. A few weeks earlier, the Sunday Telegraph had listed Gates as a “famous” BlackBerry user. Again, you had to assume that somewhere, at some time, Gates had professed to use the device.

Then on August 20, 2002, included a list of high-profile BlackBerry users in a story about RIM. Gates was included on the list, which was provided to the publication by the company.

“The company doesn’t like to be seen promoting itself on the backs of its high-profile clients. But it says the following people and organizations have been reported in the media as using the BlackBerry,” reported.

Ahh, and there’s the gist. RIM provided the publication with a list of people who “have been reported in the media as using a BlackBerry.” The line about the company not wanting to promote itself by talking up high-profile users was quite funny. “Oh, we don’t like to talk about it, but here’s a list of celebrities who reportedly use our device.”

So as of August 20, 2002, it was believed that Bill Gates uses a BlackBerry, a wireless email device manufactured by Research In Motion. There is nothing in the media that tells us otherwise. RIM perpetuated the idea that Gates is a “devoted” BlackBerry user. A week later, however, the idea died.

“Mr. Gates, who says he has never used a BlackBerry, admits he has talked to users who trumpet the handheld computer’s virtues,” wrote the Financial Post.

“There is a group of people who love the thing, but that market has been much smaller than most analysts expected. I wonder why this has done so well in some areas. But once you get by journalists and technology people, it hasn’t done that well. However, that area is a hot area and we’ll invest in it, even if it doesn’t turn out that way next year. We believe in the category,” Gates told the newspaper.

You could instantly scratch Bill Gates off the list of high-profile BlackBerry users. For several years a company touted its product and seemingly distributed a list of high-profile customers to the media. The writers loved it. They could write about a hip new product and name check celebrities in their stories. But then we found out it was all a lie. OK, not really a lie. Just a little fib or mistake.

RIM’s public relations department probably didn’t know whether or not Bill Gates used their product, but they liked the idea of it and ran with it. It was out there in the press. The origin of the myth wasn’t known, but the story had been floating around for a few years. And heck, why not just go with it until told otherwise?

The problem arises when a reader points out the discrepancy to a journalist. The little incident calls into question the legitimacy and accuracy of information released by the company’s public relations department. The plan backfires and suddenly good publicity turns bad. Yes, it’s a very small and trite piece of information, but it speaks volumes about the company. It’s such an unimportant piece of information. A little glamor for the company, but it’s a lie. And in the end, lies breakdown the trust between journalists and public relations departments. And then very quickly between consumers and companies.

Don’t let the little white lies haunt you. All it takes is one reader to point them out.

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

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