Are PR and Branded Content Fake News?

I attended a meeting of the NY Internet Society that featured a panel of media experts, journalists, and a Silicon Valley lawyer.  They discussed the problem that has come to be called “Fake News”.  You can read about the session and see a YouTube video of the event by checking out my wrap on Hack the Feed.

The neat label is deceptive because it’s an incredibly complex subject.  Some say it’s about propaganda and spinning. Others say it is about lies and counterfeit news sites. Still others say it is about how we get news today, which is increasingly on social networks.  Algorithm-driven news feeds can be gamed to spread lies. This apparently happened in the 2016 presidential elections.

Buzzfeed’s Gilad Lotan suggested Googling “Hillary’s Health.”  To this day, conspiracy theories rise to the top of the results.

Andrew Bridges, lawyer of the platforms would have us believe there are many types of “fake news”.  Seven, to be exact:

  1. Research and reporting with a pretense of being objective (e.g., major newspapers)
  2. Research and reporting in service of a cause (National Review, Nation, New Republic)
  3. Pretend journalism – claim to be a news source but is a curator (Daily Kos)
  4. Lies – the ones that Politifact and others give Pinocchio noses or “pants on fire” awards
  5. Propaganda – the systematic pattern of lying for political gain
  6. Make-believe news, like Macedonian sites.  They make up news from whole cloth.
  7. Counterfeit sites – they make you think you are at ABC, for example

He asked whether global warming, evolution or the latest gossip are examples.

You can’t find solutions without defining the problem.  It’s in Andrew’s interest to make a complex issue even more convoluted – because that makes quick fixes, especially ones that place the onus on his clients, seem inadequate.

If you see the problem as truth vs. lies vs. exaggeration vs. spin vs. propaganda – well then, it does seem to be a tough one to fix, if not impossible.  Who is the arbiter of truth? And what about opinion, which some might call spin?  What about free speech?  Should we outlaw PR, which some say is a cause?

I think the problem is more basic.  How do we even identify “news”? In this age of atomized, fragmented media, when the source can be unclear amidst the social fire hose, how can we tell if we are seeing a legitimate news item vs. some kooky rumor vs. a lie?

The first instinct is to consider the source – again the source is not always clear, and the journalist could be a citizen.

The question kind of reminds me about the concerns and debate over branded content.

I have some ideas for how to define the problem and corresponding fixes.

What do you think?

Posted in Events, In the News, NY Tech, PR, Social Media, Tech, Tech PR | 3 Comments

Enterprise Design Tips and Resources, via NYETM

I enjoyed the NY Enterprise Tech Meetup last week. In addition to two great demos, the event featured a panel that discussed UI design. It is a topic that intrigues me.  Fusion PR has represented a number of providers of tech that improve user experience.

It’s always great to do a reality check and hear about a market segment first-hand, from those who work in the field. Plus, I was hoping to learn about the publications UX pros read, and influencers they follow – great primary research for the PR team

As you’ll see, the event delivered all of this and more.

WTF is Design in the Enterprise?

You can be forgiven for thinking that “enterprise design” is an oxymoron. “Business software” does not summon images of elegance or beauty.

Plus the field is not helped by its abundance of buzzwords which all kind of sound alike: user interface, user experience, enterprise design and customer experience. Factor in related acronyms and modifiers and you have a real mess (UX, UI, CX, usability, user experience management/UEM, behavioral analytics, UX design – you get the picture).

Yet good design has never been more critical.  Vast sums are spent on software each year, and many licenses sit on a shelf, often due to poor UX. Plus, the rise of Apple and consumerization of IT have led to a growing appreciation for great design, in both hardware and software.

The Panel

On hand to help us understand Enterprise Design and how to nail it was a great panel, moderated by Jessica Lin of Work-Bench:

They all shared great tips, and the audience chimed in and repeated some of the info via Twitter.  Please see the Storify wrap below.

Enterprise Design Resources

Afterwards I had the chance to ask the panel about important design publications and  influencers.  Most agreed that Jakob Nielsen and Nielsen Norman Group are still very important.  Here are other resources:

Also, my web searches uncovered this great Medium article on 20 UX Design Blogs and this Quora Q & A on the topic.

Finally, I saw that the NY Tech Alliance is hosting a related event next Wednesday: User Experience Research – Past, Present and Future.  Tom Tullis, author of Measuring the User Experience will be speaking.


No NYETM would be complete without great vendor demos.  This one featured two:

  • MaestroQA – Helps customer care teams run quality assurance and coaching programs; improves these things by streamlining processes in one solution.
  • BigID – Helps organizations deal with unbridled PII sprawl by transforming the practice of privacy management and personal data protection.


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Newsflash: PR is NOT Sinister Media Manipulation

Over the years I’ve learned to accept that most people simply don’t understand my chosen profession, public relations.  Some think it is just about media relations, which can be irritating (see my post about PR’s PR Problem).

Working with journalists is only one aspect of the field (in this post, I list others). Many succeed in PR without ever doing so – and those that just focus on media seem increasingly old school.

If PR does not equal media relations, it hurts worse to have sinister media manipulation called PR – but that is exactly what the New York Times did in the story: Russian Hackers Find Ready Bullhorns in the Media.

The article discusses how Russian operatives packaged and sold damaging information, gained from hacking, to a pliant US press corps during the 2016 presidential campaign. Like a cheap novel, no one comes away looking very good. Max Fisher writes:

“As the dust settles on Russian interference in the United States election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents… Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The [rub] is to serve the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda. But in this case, the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency — and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.”

The piece goes on to describe exactly how this was done.  It repeatedly describes the effort as “public relations work” under the heading A New Dark Art.

In another section, ‘Almost More like a PR firm’, the reporter quotes a source:

“Tom Cheshire, a reporter with the British network Sky News… said [the operatives] behaved ‘almost more like a P.R. firm, really’ and were ‘very businesslike,’ doling out scoops and trying to shape coverage.”

In my experience the vast majority of PR pros – even the ones who focus on media work – are doing nothing more than trying to get positive press, for brands, celebrities, and organizations. It’s not about manipulating media for some sinister purpose.

Too bad, because it’s an otherwise great piece that explores the tension between reporter and source, and the public’s right to know.

Reporters, I know you have a tough job, and it’s not your responsibility to explain PR. Still, you should understand the power and impact of your words – and their potential to perpetuate negative and unfair stereotypes.

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Crowdsourcing PR Dashboard Advice

A client asked recently for our recommendations in PR dashboards. We are techies  automotive-1471899_1920here at Fusion PR, and generally pretty smart about PR and marketing tech. So I thought this would be easy. But, as I learned, the tools that I was familiar with did not fit the bill.

Luckily, with a little online sleuthing, I was able to get some answers. The experience enlightened me, shed light on a client need and led to nice interactions with new and existing contacts. It reminded me of the awesome power of crowdsourcing and the social web.

The Inquiry

The client wants an easy way to check in on the status of the PR program. This means seeing PR and social media results in one screen, which shows progress against goals for these things and others, like briefings, content developed, awards etc.

Many solve this with spreadsheets. I thought that there had to be a better way, and posted a question on Quora; and also tweeted it. One person chimed in and said, essentially, “just go out and do great PR – you are wasting your time trying to measure.” That kind of answer in not going to fly with the client (plus by this point I was really curious). So I kept looking.

Call in the Specialists

It occurred to me that the PR measurement crowd might have some answers – and that an easy way to get their attention would be to use the hash tag #MeasurePR, one that I’d seen in the Twitter chats on the topic. So I repeated my Quora question, this time with that hash tag – and hit pay dirt. None other than Katie Paine, the Queen of Metrics (that’s actually her Twitter tag) replied:

“Yes, my favorite is http://Glean.Info an updated version of a tool I’ve used for years…
I’ve done several issues of our newsletter on Dashboards. The Complete Guide to Dashboards – The Measurement Advisor. This month its all about tools.”

I had heard her name but did not know Katie – it was great to e-meet and get her take.

Digging Deeper

In her answer, Katie invited me to email follow-up questions. After checking out the links, I was still unsure, so I sent her and a few other contacts the following details:

Starting from a 6 month PR plan that sets goals and deliverables that might include numbers for:

  • Interviews in various categories, like by media type
  • Content developed
  • Coverage in various categories (type of media or blog, quality of placement)
    Social media metrics in a number of categories (network, engagement, followers, # of tweets, etc.)
  • Other variables, such as awards submitted, events pitched

The manager wants to go to a dashboard to see the progress of the program at any point. Is there a system that can automatically aggregate and display up-to-the-minute information (I understand that some data needs to be manually entered and maintained, such as number of interviews)?  Ideally without a lots of tech consulting, customization or cost?


With this extra info did Katie’s’ advice change? No – she did ask more questions about each requirement, reminding me that nothing is simple as it first seems in the world of PR tracking and measurement, and said: “It used to be a massive IT problem, but with tools like Tableau and Glean, it’s not that big a deal.”

I also checked in with Phil Barry of SeeDepth,  a comprehensive PR analytics platform that measures ROI. He suggested looking at Domo, Beckon, and SiSense.


The exercise gave me many options to explore. Hopefully you will find the information helpful. Would love to hear your experiences and thoughts about PR dashboards.

Dashboard vendors – have I left your name out? Please comment to fill us in.  Thanks!

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PR Golden Turkey Awards

turkey-296601_1280I thought I’d bring back a feature this year that I haven’t done in awhile – my PR Golden Turkey Awards.

Sound Opinions, one of my favorite podcasts inspired this year’s theme.   Their November 18 episode focused on Turkey Pardons.  Hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRagotis  absolved popular bands that were low on critics’ lists.  They mentioned isolated songs and albums they do like from the acts.

Here, I thought I’d take the opposite approach – cite atypical PR missteps by brands that generally enjoy good reputations. I am also thinking of John Grant’s great song Disappointing.

Please note that I am not writing just about customer service, product quality, security breaches or other kinds of fails; this blog is careful not to confuse these things with PR and crisis management thereof.

Wells Fargo

It’s been painful to watch the faked user accounts debacle unfold.  The company botched one of the first rules of crisis response: avoid the drip, drip, drip of piecemeal information.  Much better to rip the Band-Aid off, explain what happened, and steps the company is taking to correct the situation and avoid future problems.

There’s been a steady stream of new updates and Wells Fargo CEO Stumpf did the company no favors during Senate hearings.  At one point he tried to blame underlings, and the company PR department downplayed the terminations that followed.


Samsung did the opposite and reacted too quickly upon the first reports of their Galaxy phones catching on fire in August. They tried to contain the problem by quickly announcing a recall.

This New York Time story digs deep into the episode.  There were a number of missteps.  For starters, the problem was not corrected with the recall (which was partial, and applied only to phones equipped with batteries from a certain supplier). The Times piece said that the company did not fully cooperate with the U.S. Product Safety Commission in taking corrective action.

Eventually Samsung completely killed the phone, but not before suffering significant damage in terms of reputation and sales.


Who said “It is good to be king?” Wikipedia attributes the phrase to a 1981 Mel Brooks movie, History of the World. And it is good to be on top of the heap in social networking.  Facebook has the most users, and is becoming the go-to-place for news too.

With this status comes responsibility.  CEO Mark Zuckerberg did the company no favors by clinging to the “we are a tech company, not a media company” story amidst concerns that the company does little to reduce fake news on the site.





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In Defense of “Fake News”

More people are wondering about the weird crap that mysteriously appears in their news

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

feeds. How much is fake news? Did disinformation tilt an election? What are Google and Facebook going to do to clean up the mess?

You could almost hear the entire PR industry shifting uncomfortably amidst the backlash. I mean, crafting news (that some might call fake, or at least a stretch) is our stock in trade.  We package propaganda as newsworthy information and sell it to the media; and, increasingly publish directly to the Web and social networks.

I understand that the fuss is more about blatant lies, not the average press release.  But it highlights the challenges of determining what is newsworthy and true; a role that is increasingly being taken on by algorithms.

The Web and social media gave us all ways to easily share and spread information. This can include rumor, conjecture, commercial information, news, and yes, slander and outright lies.

I would never defend the last two; but will fight for our right to issue press releases, and traffic in other kinds of info.  Any good system needs to be able to deal with all of this, i.e. anticipate some BS and surface the most credible and significant information, whether via the wisdom of the crowds, programs or a combination.

It is naïve to think that a publication, editors, or algorithms (which of course are written by humans) can present news without bias.  The journalistic piece you just wrote might be pristine, free of opinion; but the very act of deciding which stories to feature shows partiality.

That said, the social networking platforms where more of us are getting news can do a much better job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  I thought I’d share some of the great stories I’ve seen about the controversy and takeaways from each.

TechCrunch – How Facebook can Escape the Echo Chamber

Anna Escher  says “Facebook is hiding behind its [position that] ‘we’re a tech company, not a media company’ … For such an influential platform that preaches social responsibility and prioritizes user experience, it’s irresponsible …”

She recommends that they bring journalists into the process, remove the influence of engagement on news selection during elections, and expand Trending Topics to show a greater diversity of political stories – not just the ones that are the most popular.

Tim O’Reilly – Media in the Age of Algorithms

Tim’s exhaustive Medium piece looks at all sides. He rails against “operating from an out-of-date map of the world [in which] algorithms are overseen by humans who intervene in specific cases to compensate for their mistakes,“ and says:

“Google has long demonstrated that you can help guide people to better results without preventing anyone’s free speech… They do this without actually making judgments about the actual content of the page. The ‘truth signal’ is in the metadata, not the data.”

Tim makes an analogy between news algorithms and airplanes “Designing an effective algorithm for search or the newsfeed has more in common with designing an airplane so it flies… than with deciding where that airplane flies.”

He cited an example from the history of aircraft design.  While it’s impossible to build a plane that doesn’t suffer from cracks and fatigue… “the right approach … kept them from propagating so far that they led to catastrophic failure. That is also Facebook’s challenge.”

Nieman Lab – It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of a Public Editor

Mike Ananny writes about the public editor’s role, and the challenges they face in the increasingly tech-driven environment.  He writes:

“Today, it is harder to say where newsrooms stop and audiences begin. Public editors still need to look after the public interest, hold powerful forces accountable, and explain to audiences how and why journalism works as it does — but to do so they need to speak and shape a new language of news platform ethics.”

He asks “Will the public editor have access to Facebook’s software engineers and News Feed algorithms, as she does to Times journalists and editorial decisions?” and says:

“…  public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values. This means a public editor who can hold accountable a new mix of online journalists, social media companies, algorithm engineers, and fragmented audiences — who can explain to readers what this mix is and why it matters.”

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, PR Tech, Public Relations, Social Media, Weird News | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Latest PR Tactic: Publishing on Platforms

Cross-posted on Hack the Feed

Back in the day (“the day” being about 10 years ago), we had a simple message for PR shoe-737084_1920clients who wanted to get in on the social media and blogging action.

It was: “Go forth and blog too. Master the channels that are accessible to all.” Those who took the time to produce quality content, nurture social communities and post consistently saw their online influence grow.

Now, the open web is being challenged by the growth of social networking platforms. They’re places we go to connect, and get entertained and informed. Their news clout is growing, as the networks are increasingly publishers and aggregators of content. The social networks reach vast audiences with precise targeting – compelling attributes for marketers.

In short, if you are in the news business or want to promote your own, you are missing out if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

But there are a number of challenges along the way. It takes PR out of our media-centric comfort zones. It’s not obvious how to use social networking channels to accomplish your goals, which generally include coverage KPIs.

Sure, many in PR have jumped on the social media and content marketing bandwagons. We can handle Tweeting and blogging quite well. But getting your news seen and covered or appreciated by the right audiences, especially if your profile does not already have umpteen million friends/followers, is another matter.

Success generally requires a combination of paid and organic promotion as well as an understanding of the algorithms, those wonky programs that determine what appears in our news feeds. But they are black boxes and constantly changing. Plus, ad options may be unfamiliar, and they’re also moving targets.

How does one figure this all out? Listen, read, and experiment. Dip your toes in. Test, validate, then repeat.

Reading Hack the Feed is a good start, as it offers commentary, articles about best practices and links to the right resources. The networks can be opaque, when it comes to specifics about their algorithms – but they do inform about changes and make recommendations.

In short, there are no pat answers, although one could invoke advice similar to the words at the beginning of the article: go forth and publish on Facebook (for example). Learn about the secrets of shareable content and how to get into the news feed.

I’ll close with an example from the world of politics, which seems fitting since the election has been front and center. It’s an article that ran awhile back in the NY Times Sunday magazine.

What do you think?  Could a similar approach work beyond the field of politics?  What ideas does this give you for PR? See the link and excerpts below, and please share your comments.

Inside Facebook’s… Political Media Machine
[Facebook’s] algorithms have their pick of text, photos and video produced and posted by established media organizations… But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed…

These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook… cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media…

But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web…
Truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news…. The point is to get [users] to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

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AdTech NY 2016 Wrap

adtechI attended AdTech last week, which featured a great lineup of keynotes and panels and over 100 vendors.

It seems like there’s never enough time at big shows to check out everything (Fusion PR is one stop away on the 7 subway line, too close to keep me from work’s orbit).  Some of the most interesting things are not in the program – they occur “interstitially”, during networking and conversations in-between sessions.

E.g. at the happy hour on Wednesday I chatted with a number of very compelling startups and established players. I list a few below, and also include some of the top tweets related to the event.

  • Ads on Top – An innovative solution for out-of-home ads that target consumers “in the wild” via digital signs.
  • Adaptive Campaigns – It’s a programmatic real-time engine that delivers the most relevant ad content for every impression; there’s some pretty interesting predictive tech behind Adaptive.
  • Algomizer – Interesting Israeli tech that helps improve online marketing results.
  • MediaStinct – A global, digital ad network providing search, video, mobile and display advertising solutions.
  • Sigmoid – Big data analytics, applied to advertising (and other markets).
  • Wynzyn – Incentivizes consumers to watch ads – they have some pretty incredible attention and conversion numbers.


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Trump Gets Schooled in PR

The PR field should love Donald Trump as he teaches lessons about the power of earned trumpiswrongmedia. I’ve been at many social gatherings when the conversation shifts to the campaign, and all eyes turn to me, seeming to challenge/blame: “C’mon PR boy, spin this!”

Trump is a frustrated flack, he loves to mix it up with reporters, bluster and promote. This story covers how he micromanages PR – and this one (by NY Times Run-up columnist and  podcaster Michael Barbaro) documents how Donald fell in love with the press hit at an early age: “He can still recall the thrill of a newspaper mentioning his name for the first time, as a high school baseball player.  Trump said: ‘I loved it. It was the first time I was ever in a newspaper.'”

The campaign also teaches lessons about the value of press coverage vs. advertising. It instructs about the power of the brand – the mysterious allure of some people, companies and products. He is the muse, the media gift that keeps giving – fodder for countless stories (as well as comedians and talk show hosts). Les Moonves said Trump may not be making America great but is “damn good for CBS.”

But what about that old saying: there is no such thing as bad press?

Lynn Vavreck studied campaign ad effectiveness and reported the results in this NY Times Upshot story: Do Campaign Ads Matter? Her work is also a nice treatise on PR vs. advertising, as Trump has bet almost all on free media. She learned that ads seem to work, as Clinton’s lead is growing.

“All this suggests that Mr. Trump’s strategy, while efficient in terms of costs, may not be effective in terms of persuasion. He has let Mrs. Clinton dominate the ad war in competitive battleground states and it seems to be costing him votes.”

But one very important variable Vavreck did not explore was the sentiment of coverage. I think we can all agree, without doing tons of analysis, that recent press has not been good, and this has hurt Trump’s standing.

The situation reminds me of another truism: be careful what you wish for.  You live by PR, you die by PR. Yes there is such a thing as bad press, and we just might be better off.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, In the News, Politics, PR, Public Relations | Leave a comment

New Group Aims to Study Impact of AI and Algorithms on Society

banner-1571986_1920I’ve had many great conversations with my friend and PR authority Toni Muzi Falcone about the impact of technology on the field and society at large.  Recently he told me about a new effort that he helped conceive – DigiDig – a website and citizen-led group dedicated to studying this area.

Flack’s Revenge has covered tech in PR extensively, and my companion blog Hack the Feed covers algorithms in communications.  But there are implications well beyond PR – technology increasingly determines not only the news we read, but has a role in everything from banking to education, transportation, healthcare and beyond.

Following the launch of the Internet, the old saying was “the network is the computer.”  Increasingly the technology platforms (the social networks and search engines) are the computers.  Big Tech holds the cards, and has an ever-greater role in our discourse and decisions. It is important to understand where this is going, to ensure laws and safeguards are in place, and that the net effect on society is positive.

That is my quick take, and I believe Toni would agree, but this post is about DigiDig.  They started in Italy (the website for now is almost entirely in Italian) and have an international focus.  I asked Toni to tell me more, and he shared the following:

“DigiDig  questions the algorithmic society.  It is a start-up community, launched on October 9, 2016, of some 150 Italian digitally active and prominent citizens wishing to better understand, discuss and raise awareness of peers on  issues related to ‘user power’ vis-à-vis XXI century global robber barons.

The intention is to connect with the many similar or analog groups that populate the global digital space. Our immediate focus includes Brussels and New York, but we also wish to dialog with New Zealand, Kazakhstan and Namibia.

Its promoters are academics, intellectuals,  journalists, managers, lobbyists, elected officials, communicators, writers, sociologists, and polemicists.

Following two open house sessions in Rome and Milano last June, a coordinating committee of six was formed and a web space just opened a few days ago containing a shared ‘manifesto’ plus opinions and comments in Italian and English.

The  manifesto, titled:  ‘the algorithm as a technology of freedom?’, defines its main issue as

(…..)  the active and critical observation of the true nature of the global process reorganizing social and economic life, focused on the development and exchange of cognitive products of artificial intelligence.

As algorithms simplify digital procedures as well as the automation of humanity’s most delicate and discretionary activities, we cannot accept that such process proceeds in disrespect of the elementary rules of transparency, information and access to participation to its decision-making processes and operational standards.

If it is true that –as often affirmed by creators, shareholders and executives of those global groups – we are in fact confronted with a new ‘public sphere and/or space’ (and we very much believe it is so) – we also insist that the mechanisms creating new alphabets, social structures and determining influences over individual choices, need to be understandable, shared, socially negotiable and integrated.(…).

No membership fees, but requests for contributions via PayPal at

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