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Social Media Bomb Sent from USAToday

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Working diligently through the week, contributing reporter Greg Farrell from USAToday probably never realized that his actions would send an impact around the world. In a hurried rush of editorial confusion, Greg succumbed to the pressure of sending along a message that should have been double-checked.

This however, is not your typical bomb. It is the one of the first social media bombs to explode. A social media crisis that spread around the world through major media syndicators, news outlets that didn’t check facts or investigate and disclose all of the information.

How the catastrophe at USAToday began: Friday, October 12th, 2007.

Greg Farrell had finally finished an investigative piece covering the topic of corporate whistle-blowing. The feature focus of the article was Lynn Brewer, a business woman and speaker who had earned a reputation as having been one of the whistle-blowers who emerged from the implosion of Enron. Greg’s article attempted to spotlight a series of points in Lynn’s history that would set the stage for defacing her reputation as an ethical professional with integrity in support of his article’s title: The Enron whistle-blower who wasn’t.

According to the online world the bomb started ticking when the news story went live on the front page of USAToday (Friday, Oct 12, 2007). Within hours of the release, bloggers at several media sites covered the story as hard-hitting investigative journalism and applauding the work as being a top-notch review of the real story.

CounterpointUnfortunately they were led astray. According to hardcopy evidence displayed in a personal conversation with Lynn Brewer, along with information gathered through my own personal investigation, every assertion in the article simply demonstrates how a journalist at USAToday (Greg Farrell) used his soapbox for devastating results. The very hard-hitting journalism and seemingly top-notch article were all created by a man who really needed to look in the mirror and expose his own personal agendas. Over a dozen sources ranging from BloggingStocks to WizBang were sucked into a fraudulent support of the article, likely under the presumption that an author at USAToday would double-check facts before releasing such an article.

Presuming that such investigation happened would be normally be correct, for a reputable, major media outlet. In this instance however, that investigation went down a painful path of personal and professional motives. Greg was actually provided with actual copies of pay stubs, Lynn’s letter of resignation, travel receipts, parking tickets, and even invited to listen to the audio of Ken Lay’s secretary confirming personal appointments with Lynn Brewer. For reasons that were not very apparent in the article which I will detail, the factual information was specifically left out or even flatly wrong.

As a consultant for online reputation management and how social media and technology is changing the way news is released, I have covered the use of media tools and news syndication services again and again. I have detailed ethical uses of media to cover news stories and I have also added my own research of the “facts” covered by other stories to really compare the situation… and analyze how social media has the ability to both create and ruin professional reputation. In this case social media was directly fueled by a fire started with a traditional media article and that caused a significant impact to a business woman’s online reputation.

Thousands injured…

After Greg Farrell released his story, tens of thousands of readers saw the article both in the print and online versions of USAToday. It then went through a week long cascade of being reposted by several online news blogs and syndication services, eventually dying down after a full week of exposure. During this time, readers of the article relayed information to Lynn Brewer and her professional contacts, causing potential damage to both her reputation and the company she has worked diligently over the past 6 years to build.

Since USAToday is such a well-known media outlet, dozens of individuals who relied on Greg Farrell’s article wrote various pieces supporting the viewpoint and the tone in his article. The social media mob felt justified in throwing stones at a professional who has spent six years encouraging companies to “become something better”.

When the facts become revealed: How does a professional feel when they have been “duped” by a unsubstantiated news story?

Here is a short list of bloggers and news sources who supported the article (without due investigation) and put themselves in a professional bind by exposing their readership to the article:

CONDÉ NAST PORTFOLIO, which is a sister site in the same network of sites such as Wired.com and VanityFair.com

The Bing Blog, a child of CNN’s Fortune.com – which is owned and operated by Time Warner Company.

BloggingStocks.com, a member of Weblogs, Inc, a AOL owned subsidiary and one of the largest blogging networks.

Wizbang’s Jim Addison covers political and financial topics with a nationwide audience.

The Wired GC is published by John Wallbillich, a former general counsel in the Midwest and founder of Lexvista Partners.

FierceSarbox provides CFO’s, CIO’s, CTO’s and senior compliance managers with the Sarbox guide to more efficient compliance.

In less than a full week, the story continued full-circle from traditional media, to social media, back to traditional media.

On Friday, October 26 Inside Edition’s Paul Boyd continued coverage of this story on a slant towards high-conflict journalism. Having personally watched part of the interview process and met Paul, I was left inquisitively wondering how sixty minutes of video interviewing is carefully trimmed down to make up half of a five minute segment.

In the world of social media, such editing and manipulation of the facts isn’t controlled by the journalist, the news station, or the station’s advertisers. I would be intrigued to find out what type of journalistic viewpoints can be brought to my own article: approaching 2000 words in length, I’m sure there is a good 3 to 5 minute clip somewhere in here that can add fuel to the fire.

A few of the many details left out of Greg Farrell’s USAToday article:

Lynn Brewer Lynn Brewer is author of “Confessions of an Enron Executive: A Whistleblowers story” and Founder of The Integrity Institute, a company focused on providing the tools and consulting needed to promote corporate sustainability and identify future Enrons.

Greg Farrell is author of “Corporate Crooks”, a competitive book that tries to identify points of corporate sustainability and of predicting future Enrons.

Greg Farrell has an article identifying himself as a contributing author at Integrity International; another competitive business to Lynn Brewer’s Integrity Institute. (I would love to know if there is a payroll slip there…)

The four individuals who are quoted in Greg’s article supporting his negative piece are all mentioned in Lynn’s book, with not so favorable mentions on their character or what they did at Enron. I would love to bullet point how strange it is to see that all the individuals quoted in Greg’s article have both personal and professional axes to grind with Lynn.

greg farrell usatodayHere are some examples of flat-out wrong (and somewhat ironic) points made by Greg in the review of Lynn’s paperwork:

  • According to Greg’s article, Lynn was sent to London to do a corporate training and never showed up… but she has a parking ticket from that visit for the right time frame, and just several blocks away from the building she did the training in. Apparently her car made the trip to the training location but she was somehow out in the countryside enjoying a personal vacation.
  • I also personally listened to Lynn’s voicemail that clearly identifies Ken Lay’s secretary confirming Lynn’s travel plans and Lynn’s meetings with Ken Lay just before his death.

Other interesting impacts arising from Social Media:

  • As of the time of this article: 109 comments were made on it at USAToday, within a week of posting his editorial attack on Lynn Brewer, other “second tier” social media sites were influenced.
  • Lynn Brewer’s own name entry at Wikipedia was changed within two days of the article being distributed, and even Amazon.com’s book review of “Confessions of an Enron Executive: A Whistleblower’s Story” had personal attacks against Lynn Brewer based on Greg Farrell’s article: “As verified by USA Today in an article on October 12, 2007, she was neither an executive at Enron nor was she in any position to have witnessed the wholesale malfeasance she described.”.
  • Lynn was kind enough to grant access to her server logs to detail the impact of traffic from the USAToday story, which identifies how a news story can virally increase a site’s traffic by syndicating content through the social media communities.

integritytraffic

In summary of the article written by Greg Farrell, from my perspective the article:

  • Seems entirely biased without full-disclosure.
  • Is more focused on being a personal attack rather than real journalism.
  • Leads the reader down a path of half-presented information, denying readers basic facts and the ability to decide for themselves.
  • Was the catalyst that triggered pack mentality across the social media blogosphere.

The USAToday story defines clear issues at the newspaper, and in across the current media distribution channels:

  • We cannot assume that stories are in fact true.
  • We cannot assume that journalists present non-biased articles.
  • We cannot assume that the basic facts given are accurate.
  • Lastly, we cannot assume that syndicated information on other news sites is true, non-biased, accurate, or even remotely on-target.

As media figureheads and as evangelists of ethical and moral journalism, we must not shed our responsibility to question everything and confirm what we are told. Each and every one of us has the duty to examine the issues deeper than the media paparazzi trying to get onto the cover of the next grocery store magazine or sell advertising to a pop-culture audience. We cannot rid ourselves of this responsibility to the public by syndicating stories without disclosing and investigating all of the facts.

Knowing that major drama based media companies will always produce ethically challenged stories driven by advertising campaigns, I’m placing a challenge to all social media journalists: to raise the bar of true journalism by presenting as many facts as we can and working together to reveal what major news outlets hide.

This is a critical subject, requiring on-going debate and meriting all of our efforts to produce journalism that raises the bar for future of our media.

My own disclaimer: this is the personal review and commentary of Barry Hurd. My sister works as a consultant with the Integrity Institute which is founded by Lynn Brewer. Lynn Brewer is a personal friend. Lynn Brewer is also a client of my company: SocialMediaSystems.com. Having detailed knowledge of the social media space and online reputation, along with a detailed knowledge of Lynn’s work, my own investigation both in the real world and online, and personal reviews of evidence (hard copy records, audio tracks, etc… on a CD in my possession if anyone wants to read/listen), I detailed the ripple of impact that occurred from the nationwide syndication of one reporter’s bad journalism.

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