Certainly by now everyone has heard about the balloon boy fiasco. On Oct. 15, the seemingly real-life drama of a boy stuck in a runaway balloon captured the attention of media and its viewers as well as the time of first-responders and military for the span of two hours and counties. When the balloon landed, no boy was to be found. Eventually, he was found to be hiding in his parent’s garage.
In the days that followed, an even more bizarre tale has unraveled – the whole fiasco was a premeditated publicity stunt. The Henne family, two-time participants on a prime-time reality show, hatched the plan to gain attention for a new reality show that they were pitching to networks, and now they face criminal (and possibly federal) charges.
Even as I write this, yet another example of “stupid PR tricks” has surfaced, as an activist organization posing as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce staged a fake news conference and issued a counterfeit news release that seemingly reversed the organization’s controversial stance on climate change policy. Their hoax was so convincing that major news outlets not only attended the conference but also ran reports based on the release!
As a communicator, I am bothered by the erosion of accuracy in reporting and honesty from newsmakers.
One of the side-effects of living in an era where information moves at the speed of 140 characters a second is that reporting is becoming more inaccurate, as media outlets rush to break each story. Instead of checking facts and vetting sources, reporters go with the quickest answer. From the other side of the desk, we always stress the importance of carefully reviewing and preparing responses to media inquiries to ensure accuracy. We should follow the advice of CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who commented with regards to the fake Chamber of Commerce event: "When a story sounds too good to be true, you've got to check, recheck and check again."
I have seen the label “PR stunt” used in conjunction with these farces. While no one will mistake the Henne family as PR professionals, they still violated one of the basic tenets of PR – always tell the truth! What does a fake news conference do to further the cause for climate change policy? The adage of “no publicity is bad publicity” is obsolete. In these days where audience feedback and participatory journalism permeates even traditional media, the prospect of a backlash is too great to risk on tricks or pranks. These hoaxes undermine the credibility of the individuals involved and the causes that they support.
If these types of events continue, we face the continued erosion of the credibility of the media/PR dynamic. What are your thoughts?