Is earned media so valuable you’d risk your reputation to find a means to secure it?
Is inventing a fake expert really the best way to promote a for-profit business?
The bizarre case of Drew Cloud is worth examining from several perspectives.
Inventing a persona
This isn’t a problem because two things are generally clear: one, the persona isn’t a real person; and two, the product being pushed is obvious.
Drew Cloud fails on both counts. Far from being obvious that the persona wasn’t a real person, he was specifically pitched as an individual, an “authoritative expert” on student loan debt.
This brings us to the second count—“he” never disclosed he was a fictional entity designed to push student loan debt refinancing for a for-profit company.
There are so many things wrong with this, I’m not sure where to start.
Ethics and transparency
What is the first thing PR professionals should be taught about media relations? If you answered “Never, ever lie to a reporter,” congratulations, you are correct.
It’s one thing to develop a clearly fictitious persona to advertise beer or men’s aftershave. It’s completely different to use a fake person to pitch major news organizations as a source of a very hot topic (student loan debt).
The temptation is real.
Media relations is one of the toughest aspects of PR work in my opinion.
Speaking as someone who is an introvert, media relations has long felt like the most grueling, difficult work a PR pro can do.
My first real foray into media work was when I worked for a state senator. That isn’t a good intro to PR work, because there is a major difference—when I worked for the senator, journalists generally wanted to talk to me (well, actually they wanted to talk to the senator, but I facilitated).
When you are working for a client, journalists generally don’t want to hear your pitches. They are almost always on deadline, and you get yelled at—a lot. Or sometimes just hung up on.
So, the impetus to develop a persona that the media actually wants to talk to—someone who the media will even seek out for comment? It’s there.
It’s nicer to be on the “not yelled at” side, and, bonus, your earned media coverage is better too.
Being someone who is irresistible to journalists is awesome for your media coverage.
Journalism and verification
Journalists were so interested in the pitches—after all, who wouldn’t be with topics like “one in five students use loan money to buy cryptocurrency”?
The problem of course is that Mr. Cloud wasn’t real.
An even bigger problem is that he garnered so much earned media attention before being found out.
And he was revealed not by one of the high profile, national outlets who carried his studies or printed his quotes, but by the Chronicle of Higher Education—which is certainly a solid, top-tier publication, but it is a niche publication.
A niche publication that has a strong interest in students and student loans.
Clicks and stories
Journalists are being asked to do more than ever, and one of the demands are stories that generate reader traffic. The types of studies being referenced by ‘Drew Cloud’—a pen name, by the way, for a group of writers at a website set up by the company that refinances student loans, sort of a Publius with very different aspirations—were designed to catch eyeballs.
And therein lies the problem. These types of stories aren’t hard-hitting investigative journalism, they are drive-by quick hits that generate eyeballs and shares for a bit and then they’re gone.
Who is going to expend limited newsroom resources to chase down and verify content that is so…ephemeral?
Most journalists that I’ve known have very good instincts. They know when something seems “off” about a story or doesn’t completely have a true ring to it.
But several missed the signs or ignored their instincts this time.
This is a cautionary tale for companies who might have ever considered a “Drew Cloud” setup.
It is also a cautionary tale for journalists who might want to run with a story that is virtually certain to generate clicks.
It’s also a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of turning over the writing of stories to AI—could AI have caught this?
Treat this as an interesting and instructive case for why it’s important to always be straightforward with the media if you’re in PR.
See it as a reminder that fake stories can come in many forms if you are in journalism.
We have a lot of work to do if earned media is going to regain its place of trust with the public.