Tag Archives: Public relations

Astroturfers Revisited

Good piece (video) by Jon Ronson about astroturfing:

Esc and Ctrl: Jon Ronson investigates astroturfing – video

In the second part of Jon Ronson’s series about the struggle for control of the internet, he looks at online astroturfing – when unpopular institutions post fake blogs to seem more favourable. He meets the former vice president of corporate communications for US healthcare company Cigna, who confirms his involvement in this kind of activity

He talks about the “death panels”: the Cigna whistleblower, Wendell Potter [Wikipedia] tells him that the company created lots of fake blogs and groups, all of which have since disappeared, including from archive.org, to get the issue going. Looking at a google search trend of the term “death panels”, you can see how it appears from nowhere so suddenly:

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I’ve not seen an issue spring from nothing to the max quite like that for a while.

No question that we don’t really know just how widespread this is. It’s good that Ronson, whom I greatly admire, is on the case. Should be entertaining and revealing too.

Here’s some stuff I’ve written about this in the past:

The Real Conversation I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

Social Media and Politics- Truthiness and Astroturfing Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

“How’s the Review Going?” Spam

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At a conference I have been attending I was asked to explain to PR folk there what journalists want. Apparently, by the time my session came around, the PR folk had been put off by several previous journalists who had presumably used clear language to express what they want because most didn’t turn up. Wisely, since the three who did either nodded off, feigned stomach convulsions and left the room or got overly fresh with their BlackBerry.

This didn’t stop me ranting and raving like a lunatic about how PR people don’t often understand what we want. One thing I didn’t mention is the Bane of the Follow-up Email. These are emails sent (often automatically) in the period after a journalist expresses interest in a product sufficiently to download it, or receive further details on it, or whatever. From then on the PR person will send a weekly email — exactly the same one, each time — asking for a status update. Forever, or until the PR company no longer represents the client, or the PR person dies, or the company they work for gets shut down for being a spammer.

Now, not many PR agencies do this, but those that do seem impervious to the irritation this causes folk like me. Imagine if every PR agency did this: A journalist’s inbox would be so full of these things they wouldn’t be able to do any reviewing at all. So my policy is never to reply to them for fear of encouraging the practice. But, frankly, it is no better than spam, and it leaves the journalist (well, this journalist) in a frayed and hostile mood, which can’t be good for the company or the product the PR person is being paid to promote.

So, please, no mindless follow-up emails unless it’s to offer fresh (and relevant and useful) information, and certainly no automated one that goes out every week. We’ll get to your products when it suits our schedule, not yours, and if you start to bombard us we’ll probably ditch the idea of writing about your product in a fit of petulance.

Pumping Stock, Spam and the Criminal Underworld

If you ever feel the urge to trade on a spam stock tip, I offer this unsolved whodunnit as a cautionary tale.

If you’ve been getting an extra dumpster of spam in your inbox lately, it’s probably because of a little known company called Cana Petroleum. If you open the email in question (and I’ve counted nearly 300 in my spam dumps in the past three days alone) you’ll find it’s a pretty straightforward pump and dump scam, where the sender tries to raise buying interest in the stock (the pumping bit) to push up the price so he can make a killing selling his stock (the dumping bit.)

It worked: according to Don Mecoy of The Daily Oklahoman:

Cana Petroleum shares, which trade on the unregulated Pink Sheets via the over-the-counter market, lost 32 percent on Friday to close at $4. On Thursday, the stock traded as high as $10 a share. Seven months ago, it traded for about a dime.

But is this just a case of some day trader making a quick killing? Or is there something more sinister afoot? The company involved has been in trouble before for promoting its stock. Don says that “Information regarding the company is difficult to find. Internet searches reveal no Web site, and telephone listings for Cana Petroleum led to disconnected or wrong numbers:

The company changed its name, ticker symbol and business model in August. Previously called Global DataTel, the company sold personal computers, mainly in Latin America.

Securities regulators filed a complaint against Global DataTel in 2001, and obtained a judgment against a stock promoter hired by the company. He was accused of spreading groundless price projections and strong “buy” recommendations even as he sold his own shares of the company’s stock. The promoter and two Global DataTel executives were fined.

Global DataTel shut down operations in the spring of 2001, “due to the big financials problems,” according to a regulatory filing.

That’s pretty much where the trail ends. As Don points out, a lot of companies don’t like their stock being manipulated for obvious reasons. The promoter involved in the 2001 case, Stuart Bockler, seems to have kept a low profile since. The SEC complaint describes him as a “corporate public relations consultant who controlled and operated, as the sole employee, three public relations-related companies — International Market Advisors Inc., International Market Call Inc., and Imcadvisors, Inc. — and a related Internet website www.imcadvisors.com.” The website itself is under construction although it does offer an address in Columbus, Indiana and an email address under the name Don Michael. The WHOIS information is the same.

Archived copies of the site indicate it’s been pretty dormant since 2001, when its homepage touted a mailing list of “hot news” for $100 a year. (You can see the buy recommendations IMC put out on Global Data Tel at this archived page: In less than five months it put out six ‘breakout buy’ reports on the company, out of a total of nine. A copy of one of the reports is here.) According to the SEC complaint, Bockler sent out 30,000 emails drawing attention to the reports. The stock rose, according to the SEC, from $7.19 a share on Jan 12 1999 to reach a high of $18.84  in April. Within a month of Bockler’s last report the price had fallen to $2.875.

From there the trail goes cold. Or does it? In 2004 a Beverly Hills lawyer called Allen Barry Witz pleaded guilty in a Newark District Court to manipulating the same stock with the help of four other men. (Bockler was also indicted, but I can find no record of the case having gone to trial.) But more intriguing is the link to a murder case that has not been solved: One of Witz’s unindicted co-conspirators, Joe. T. Logan Jnr, was, according to the Asbury Park Press, closely connected to two pump and dump stock dealers, Albert Alain Chalem and Maier Lehmann, who were murdered execution-style in October 1999, the same time the Global Datatel pump fraud ended. The two men’s stock website, StockInvestor.com, was heavily promoting the stock in the last recorded snapshot of the site before their deaths, about two weeks before they were killed. The most recent news article on the unsolved killings, by AP’s David Porter on October 30, quotes one of the dead man’s attorneys as saying:

“It sounded like an extremely professional hit,” he said. “It sounded like the perpetrators were on a plane back to Eastern Europe before they even found the bodies.”

It all may be a coincidence, of course. But the killings, the indictments and the fraud in the Global Datatel case might help to remind us that the links between stock scams, spam and criminal organisations with access to ruthless killers are not the stuff of fiction.

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PR Pushes TiddlyWikis

An interesting development, according to Netimperative – The UK PR industry gets online trade body:

Public Relations Online (PRO), a new UK forum designed to promote the role of the Internet in the PR industry, has launched this week. The forum aims to educate the PR industry about the technologies and techniques needed to respond to the challenges of online communications. PRO is being launched by digital PR firms Market Sentinel and immediate future.

They are joined by contributors from Abakus Internet Marketing, Blogging Planet, Brand Energy Research, Creative Virtual, Custom Communications, Internet Reputation Services, Onalytica, Sitelynx and Tiddlywiki.

 Must confess I haven’t heard of any of those, but I love TiddlyWiki (shame they spelt it wrong.) I would love to see that tool go mainstream. If you haven’t checked out what it’s all about, do so. It’s basically a personal database in a single HTML file. There’s a great website dedicated to tips about using TiddlyWikis, a tutorial and a world map of TiddlyWiki users, courtesy of Frappr (I’m on it and I’m pumped to see how many users there are in this corner of the globe, although I still seem to be the only one working out of Indonesia.)

How (Not) To Pitch A Blogger

I get a the growing feeling that we bloggers are being targeted more than we were by PR folk. Sure, there’s the Warner/Secret Machines/MP3 blog debacle, where a Warner employee used some hamfisted tactics to get some bloggers to write about a Warner act. But there are other tactics too, and some are more impressive than others.

I lead a double life as a technology columnist — indeed, that’s why this blog exists — so I get quite a lot of PR pitches, some of whom are hoping I’ll do a column on their client, some of whom are just looking for a blog entry. All of this is fair game, and assumes a degree of professionalism on both sides.

But I didn’t realise until today that there are media “lists” of bloggers out there who are now being targetted by PR types. I received a pitch from a US-based public relations company for the Motorola DCP600 Digital Video Home Entertainment System. The email began thus:

As a blogger focusing on news and trends within the technology sector, I thought that you would be interested in this innovative home entertainment system from Motorola. Please consider covering this new product in your blog. Feel free to contact me if you need further info, have any questions, etc.

Fair enough, except for a couple of things. First off, the email address used has never been posted on this blog, and has only been used for spam, phishing attacks and Nigerian email fraud for the past year. The only exception: A pitch by another PR guy, back in June 2003. So where did they get my email address?

A quick email later, and the PR company tells me: “I received your information through a media research database.” Fair enough. Bloggers, clearly, are being tracked, and that’s probably no great shakes. But why the out-of-date email address? And why no basic data which might shape the nature of the pitch, such as I also happen to be a technology columnist for Dow Jones?

What makes it all a tad weirder is that the pitch is for a product that was announced in January, seven months ago, and won’t be available in the stores until “either October or
November (in time for the holiday shopping season)” — another two or three months away. Not exactly a hot story, either way you look at it. If I was half-asleep (not that unusual, I admit) I might have just edited down the attached press release and bingo! Motorola would have had a bit of free publicity to keep their product bubbling away on the search engines until the product actually appears in the stores.

Bottom line: I don’t mind being pitched. And I don’t mind it that much if the product is actually either too old to really get excited about, or too far away from the stores to burden readers with it. But couldn’t these media research databases, and the people who use them, do a bit of basic research (it’s called ‘Googling’) before they fire off their pitches? We bloggers, just like journalists, are a sensitive lot and hate to feel we’re being taken for a ride by folk who haven’t done their homework first. Otherwise it looks dangerously like spam.

Knowledge Management, Corporate Blogging, and Scobleizer

This week I wrote a couple of pieces on Knowledge Management for the Far Eastern Economic Review — a sort of overview of KM for the layman, and a column on corporate blogging, centred around Robert Scoble. (Both are subscription only, I’m afraid. The WSJ version of the column will appear here next week.) Here’s a taster:

ONCE UPON A TIME there was an evil bespectacled king called Bill who ran nearly 98% of the world, imposing on it bloated software solutions and enslaving it in usurious licensing agreements. Resentment of Bill was so widespread that all the king’s public relations and philanthropic works couldn’t put his image back together again. Then, one day, along came a rather chubby computer marketer called Robert Scoble who, via his on-line journal, or blog, turned it all around. Suddenly everybody liked the king again and bought all his products. (Well, at least, they didn’t resent him quite so much, and even spoke to him at parties.)

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who helped me get my brain around KM, and my apologies to those I couldn’t include in the piece, and to those who feel I got it all, or any of it, horribly wrong. As a journalist, I can honestly say writing about KM is not easy.

Toshiba Asia’s PR

Take pity on us journalists. I tried to reach Toshiba’s PR handlers in Asia this morning. It’s not easy. Their Japanese site has a webpage which contains press releases but none of those releases contained contact numbers, names or emails. (How are we expected to ask follow up questions if there’s no contact number? A press release is not the end of the story, at least for a journalist who does his job properly.) Their regional webpage takes you to the same site.

Nowhere else on the website could I find any sort of contact that could be described as PR. The contact us webpage contains all sorts of exciting links, but nothing that could be described as a PR department. There’s a ‘non-product enquiry’ page which requires you fill in a form, but no names, no phone numbers, nothing that might help a journalist get a question answered.

Then I had an idea: Benjamin, a unit of Weber Shandwick, the PR agency, handles Toshiba in the U.S., so perhaps Weber Shandwick’s regional office in Hong Kong might know. Er, no. Nothing so far.

Eventually I picked up the phone and called their headquarters. A very helpful woman answered the phone, took down my details and then played me some rather soothing tinkly music (several times, I couldn’t help noticing) before telling me the whole PR department had gone for lunch (it being, after several rounds of tinkly music, 12.03 pm.) So I was told to call back ‘after lunch’.

Why is it easier to reach a small company than it is to reach a big one? Why issue a press release without any contact details on it? Why hire big PR companies to handle your PR but not actually let journalists know who those PR companies are, and how we can reach them?

Yuck. I’m going to have to call back Toshiba Japan just to soothe myself with some more tinkly music.