There’s a sucker born every minute. As a reporter, particularly a business journalist, you don’t want the next one to be you.
There have been major examples of companies and individuals in business duping the press, whether classics like Enron’s bizarre accounting structures that few challenged, Bernie Madoff’s supercharged Ponzi scheme, or the years-long tale of blood testing company Theranos. But the attempts haven’t stopped.
German payments processor Wirecard built a great image of a quickly growing tech firm, until it went belly up and, now, is being sold off, piece at a time like an animal carcass at a butcher. One of the tactics they used was to announce one partnership after another, often with big names, as The Wall Street Journal reported. Except, according to the story, some number of the business relationships.
And there was the fake personal finance writer from last summer who got many outlets to cover her. Some reporters became suspicious when they found her claims to be empty when checking further. (Even the photo on her website belonged to someone else, and she claimed to be in her 30s but said she had spent 25 years developing her financial approach.)
Examples like these seem ridiculous, except that many reporters do get taken, even if not on a large level. Here are some of the reasons:
- A story seems too good to pass up and you want it.
- You don’t have enough experience in a field to know how to check someone out.
- You assume that someone else might beat you to getting a report out.
- You’ve developed what you think is a relationship with a PR person or business executive and now trust what you hear.
- Deadlines are tight, and you feel pressed for time, or you think the assignment doesn’t warrant that level of work.
- The company or companies involved have big names and it seems unthinkable that any would risk their reputation.
- A business acquaintance vouched for the parties.
There are plenty of others. Feel free to add onto the list. The only thing they all have in common is that not a single one is a valid excuse for getting used. Here are some ways to avoid it.
Always check the background
Remember, when your mother says she loves you, doublecheck. It’s even more important here. You want to know that people and companies exist. Check business directories. See if a company lifted photos or text on a website from others. Does someone claim a degree from Harvard, Stanford, or other university that lends itself to name dropping? Look for evidence and, if that doesn’t turn something up, check with the registrar.
Background includes the company. Can you find a phone and address and then verify it an alternate way? Where was it incorporated and how long ago?
Verify business details
Be sure that claims are accurate. Take the Wirecard example. Why assume that because a large business is mentioned as a partner that it is? Some marketing people will stretch things—a big name bought a single unit for testing and suddenly the smaller business acts as though the larger one is an actual client using products. Ask the firm for a contact at the big company that can verify the claim.
Be sure that the people who supposedly work there do. Many years ago, I did some freelance writing for a physician in the Boston area. Not only did he try to stiff me (which didn’t work out for him), but he put my name up on his site and claimed I was the vice president of marketing. That also got rectified after I found him at work and pointed out that if he didn’t want to hear from me then, he’d better make things right. There are sociopaths and fools who think they can get away with anything. Don’t assume a virtual form of body snatching is beyond their ambition.
Look for patent and trademark filings that you might reasonably expect from a corporation. Also check for court cases that might involve them. Look at sites like Glassdoor to see how employees react (remember that some companies will create bogus reviews to improve their image).
Stick to your process
Yes, time’s short for everyone. Here’s a promise: A “scoop” is far less valuable than your reportorial reputation intact. Take all the steps you normally would. When looking for customers, don’t settle for the names the company wants to hand you. Look for people that you’ve found yourself, if possible. Check with former employees that you might be able to find on a site like LinkedIn.
And remember to take everything with some salt. Misrepresentations can start with what to someone in business seems a harmless bit of spin and eventually end in a courtroom. Be careful, methodical, and disinterested in the results.