Bogus press releases have become a fact of the modern wired life, and Golden Valley-based General Mills became the latest victim Tuesday night when a release was posted with the headline “Obama Orders Full Investigation of General Mills Supply Chain Following Food Recalls.”
“We were the victim of a hoax,” said Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for General Mills in a genuine press release the company issued Wednesday afternoon. “We found the false release and removed it within minutes, but even false information can still spread incredibly quickly on the Internet. This information did not come from the company. It was not authorized or confirmed by the company. We are shocked that the news release was posted. It was quite clearly and obviously a hoax.”
The company said that there was no truth to the information in the hoax release, and it was removed within minutes when it was detected by General Mills. However, headlines and stories appeared briefly on newswires, and online automated alerts from services such as Google further disseminated the false headlines, some with links to the hoax release or to retracted news stories.
The release was issued by a commercial press release distribution service, PR Newswire, at about 11 p.m. Tuesday night. Kirstie Foster, director of public relations for the food giant, saw the release cross the wires and called PR Newswire, which pulled the release and issued a retraction. She then called news services that had run stories based on the release, and they pulled their stories.
General Mills uses a competing distribution service, but several of the company’s brands use public relations agencies that use PR Newswire, according to Foster. She was unwilling to speculate about how the breach occurred but said the company is looking into it.
The firm said it is investigating the incident and has engaged with law enforcement agencies. The company declined to provide details of that investigation, but said it would pursue and prosecute the matter to the fullest extent of the law.
Foster was unwilling to speculate as to the motives behind the phony press release, saying, “That is part of the investigation.”
In an email exchange, Rachel Meranus, vice president of communications for PR Newswire, issued the following statement: “PR Newswire issued a press release in the U.S. and the U.K. provided to us from someone purporting to be from General Mills, Inc. Upon learning from General Mills that the press release was a hoax, PR Newswire promptly issued a ‘kill’ notice advising media and databases to pull the press release immediately.
“PR Newswire maintains stringent editorial procedures and safeguards to protect against hoax releases, and it is an extremely rare occurrence when a situation circumvents these procedures. We take this situation — and any similar hoaxes that our peers in the news distribution services industry have to confront — very seriously. We have reported the situation to the appropriate regulatory authorities and will cooperate in any investigation that may occur as a result of the hoax. Because this situation is pending potential investigation, we cannot comment further at this time.”
Ersatz press releases have been issued by Wall Street traders to try to move a stock, but that is typically done during trading hours, involving smaller and less liquid stocks. The bogus General Mills release never ran during trading hours. A quick check of options trading on General Mills stock did not show a large amount of activity in “put” options, which would be a bet on the stock’s price declining.
Bogus press releases and fake press conferences have also become a favored tactic of activists trying to score publicity points.