A long time ago, I was in a software distribution business with a large audience of software developers and engineers. Much of my time was spent plenty talking to vendors. They always had something they wanted to sell. A lot of times, it was a new version they claimed was coming out, often one whose promise was intended to keep existing customers from moving to a rival. And when the company missed one deadline after another, with no new product in sight, we called the announcements vaporware.
Software companies aren’t the only ones that claim to have things they don’t. You get that in all industries and at all times, businesses big and small. Puffing up and claiming achievements that aren’t true is a human frailty. But it can be a big problem when you’re hearing it as a reporter. You can’t take anything for granted. Here are some of the things to check.
One of the biggest questions that come up is whether a company is out in the world, producing a product or service that someone is using. You always need to push on that point and then insist on talking to a customer to verify. I’m in the middle of interviews on a piece and had to speak with a number of vendors. One claimed to have a customer that fit the use case I was interested in. But when I did the interview, I found that it wasn’t. Someone probably thought I wouldn’t check, or perhaps that I wouldn’t ask for enough details.
Companies will also make claims about what they’ve achieved and are. A simplistic example is when executives or PR representatives claim that the business is the undisputed leader in a technology or industry. Any company in such a position is likely to be well known already. That may seem like unimportant braggadocio, and it might be. But what happens when someone claims that the company is a Fortune 500 when it isn’t, assuming that you won’t check. Maybe there will be statements about having been chosen a best place to work. Whatever is said, be sure everything is accurate.
Financial claims may be the most complicated area to look at. Public companies have to report financial information, but they will frequently want to talk about pro forma or non-GAAP results to make themselves look better. Private companies offer a more difficult subject because they only have to provide the information they wish. Some will pretend to be far better off than they actually are. Years ago I wrote about some public companies that were well known and which had claimed to be steadily profitable before they went public. They weren’t. Sometimes you won’t be able to verify information. There might be a good reason, but always be wary. Plenty of people in business want to play you. Having information come out in the frame of journalism can be a powerful tool. Do your best to know the truth in every story and to present it with insight and fearlessness.