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Weekly Comment

Press releases for the press?

28-May-2007

In a world where getting your name out there is called branding, and branding in turn equals better market share, some companies will go to great lengths to draw attention to their name. With information sources driven by open-access Internet, companies can tailor press releases not always intended for the press.

In online trade journalism, a high turnover of stories means that more often than not, we rely on companies to feed us with their news and developments. This useful public relations tool is how we learn of mergers and acquisitions, corporate results, and new products or patents. But what happens when companies push the boundaries of press release protocol by issuing releases containing no news, or - worse yet - news that is in fact denouncing other companies? Is it the role of the trade press to cover news that arises from blatantly self-serving purposes? The answer may at first seem like an obvious one: just take the moral high ground and don't give such press releases any coverage. However, the he-said-she-said topic of such releases will more than likely surface on the same day in other trade websites, thereby giving it a firm footing in the week's news. And no information provider wants to miss the boat - it's the very nature of news. This is a debate that arises time and again in all forms of journalism. It is the reason for which American network news recently ran chilling homemade videos Seung-Hui Cho (the gunman behind the April 16 shooting at Virginia Tech) had sent to them, but also the reason a very public controversy ensued. While the trade press is not dealing with mourning families or underage viewers, it is dealing with company reputations. And the food industry is so science-driven it presents a legal quagmire not seen to the same extent by many industries, with patent disputes leading some food manufacturers to air their dirty laundry in public. These legal cases, usually dealing with alleged patent infringements, present a significant challenge for the trade press which risks being slapped with its own libel lawsuit if it gets it wrong. With court proceedings underway and the fate of two companies hanging in the balance, we enter dicey territory as soon as a press release from one of the two parties makes its way to our inbox. Each side will inevitably deny wrong-doing or contradict the other company's statements, leaving us scrambling for the truth and fair representation of each side's claims. We feel like the judge in what becomes an online court case. The same can be said for situations in which a company makes far-reaching claims in a press release. If we publish these claims, we can ignite the wrath of another company and open another case of virtual mud-slinging. A press release is in fact a public relations tool that allows a company to shape information as it would like it to be interpreted, but the advent of the Internet has meant these statements are directly available to readers and stakeholders. As journalists, we already make a news judgment based on relevance, timeliness and interest to readers and proceed accordingly giving all sides an opportunity to speak or rebut. That is, as long as their rebuttal is relevant, timely and of interest to readers By and large, we can trust a press release if a company tells us it is merging with another or launching a new line of ingredients - although there is always scope to dig a little deeper and find new angles on the story. One of the first lessons in a child's life is not to accept candy from strangers. But where should we draw the line and no longer trust? Here's where you, reader, can help us out. Are the food industry's he-said-she-said stories useful to you, or should we leave well alone and let interested parties lap up one-sided 'press releases' at will?


Clarisse Douaud is a reporter with NutraIngredients-USA.com and has lived and worked in Canada, Ireland, Argentina and France. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to: clarisse.douaud@decisionnews.com