Have you read about Volkswagen’s misguided April Fool’s prank on journalists? If not, the short version of the story is this: The company posted a news release on its website newsroom announcing a name change to Voltswagen to reflect its move to produce more electric vehicles. Several major news organizations reported the story as actual news. The company later admitted it was an April Fool’s prank and those news organizations had to run retractions and apologies.
There’s a long history of companies running April Fool’s jokes, as seen in this 2019 story on the UK website, The Drum.
However, there’s a difference, between a fun promotion for consumers and outright deception to the media. When a news release appears on a company’s website, that means it’s a legitimate story for publication or broadcast. If a journalist contacts the company to confirm the accuracy and intent of the content and is outright lied to, the company’s credibility is grievously damaged long-term.
As a working journalist and PR professional who has spent time at DaimlerChrysler (now Stellantis) and consulting for Franco, I’ve ridden that thin rail between both worlds, so I feel I have a unique perspective.
The danger of inaccurate or fake content being picked up by the media is higher than ever simply due to the competitive pressures of a non-stop news cycle. That doesn’t mean journalists get a pass to skip their due diligence – it just means they may not be given the luxury of time to be thorough, most likely because there’s an editor leaning on them to be first (rather than accurate).
As PR professionals, we’re often pressured to “make a splash.” Individuals who are not in our world may not be sensitized to journalistic and ethical standards. That’s putting it tactfully. My personal belief is it’s never a smart move to trade ethics for opportunity. If you do, your trust, credibility and overall reputation will evaporate in a nanosecond, as well as your career.
When DaimlerChrysler approached me to make the jump from The Detroit News to its corporate communications team to establish its first foray into social media, I was intrigued, but I wasn’t certain I was ready to go over to “the dark side.” So, I made them a simple deal. If I were ever ordered to lie to a reporter, they could accept my resignation immediately.
My reputation got me the job. Once destroyed, it’s almost impossible to resurrect. Oh, that phenomenon may be celebrated at Easter, but in our world of information and honesty, once you’ve lost your credibility you’re not coming back…and that’s no April Foolin’.