Can Bots Trick Journalists Too?

Posted on February 2, 2018

By Steve Eisenstadt

The veteran technology journalist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols was in his home office in North Carolina in late January, writing one of the two or three stories he pumps out every day, when he saw a Facebook ad that stopped him in his tracks.

“Trick a journalist,” said the ad in bold blue type. “Scrape the web for journalists, automatically contact them and get them writing about you. Let’s get you more suckers. There’s a journalist born every minute.”

Vaughan-Nichols clicked on the link, and it took him to a website called trickajournalist.com, which seemed to target tech startups. The company claimed to use a “proprietary Artificial Intelligence bot” to track down reporters and automatically generate pitches. “You won’t have to write a thing,” it said. “You don’t even need a story.”

Vaughan-Nichols, who thought he had seen it all in his nearly three decades in the business, re-posted the ad along with the comment: I can guarantee that you’re wasting your money if use this ‘service’ to try to get a journalist to write about you. We are constantly bombarded with crap that we’ll never write about, but I’ve never seen such an obnoxious ad promoting journalism spam before.

I found the site so over the top – it included a quote from an unnamed startup founder declaring that “suckers” at major news organizations undeservedly  “wrote glowing reviews about our crypto startup” – that I told Vaughan-Nichols I doubted it was authentic.

It’s real enough that they’re paying to advertise on Facebook,” he replied. “That’s an expensive joke.

Real or not, the sheer existence of the ad raises troubling questions.

Is the political rallying cry of “fake news” whipping up so much scorn for journalists that this toxic ad is now considered acceptable? (By the way, while hostility toward the media is far more pronounced and sickening under President Trump, it bears remembering that the Obama administration rejected more Freedom of Information Act requests than any administration in history, prompting New York Times reporter James Risen to call it “the most anti-press administration since the Nixon administration.”)

Why would Facebook, which says it is trying to combat misinformation in users’ news feeds, permit this ad?

And does the ad merely caricature a belief among some in Silicon Valley that gullible and overworked reporters are just ripe for the taking? If companies can get coverage simply by blasting them with emails, phone calls and social media outreach – “like a cheetah catching its prey,” as the ad breathlessly put it — why not?

Let’s be clear: PR people are in the business of getting their company’s or client’s stories told, and can be aggressive and creative in that pursuit, but no real professional thinks it’s okay to trick or otherwise pester a journalist. They would never use this or any other spamming service.

The appearance of this ridiculous ad serves as a reminder that, as much as the world has changed, the fundamentals of good media relations haven’t. Getting your story told starts with having a good story to tell. And it often advances because of strong relationships with reporters. Reporters who know you don’t waste their time.

This is why trickajournalist.com should offend not just journalists but the PR pros who work with them.

By the way, to try to learn more, I set up a fake email account (using the name of my imaginary childhood friend, if you must know) and registered with trickajournalist.com.

The automated response: “Thank you! Our invite list is at capacity. We’ll be in touch as we release more.”

I’m not holding my breath.

Steve Eisenstadt is Content Director at Offleash. He works with clients on developing high-impact op-ed pieces, blogs, case studies, white papers and other written content. His experience includes 17 years in corporate and agency communications — all in high tech — and 15 as a journalist. Contact Steve at steve@offleashpr.com.