When you offer a paid service that people begin to think of as a right — running water, electricity, or another kind of basic need — the only feedback you’re likely to get is when something goes terribly wrong.
Like a brownout. Or a blown water main. Or a pothole.
Simply, no one’s going to pat you on the back for that new recycled water system you just put in. It’s citizens’ tax dollars at work. Right?
Tired of being pushed into a public relations corner, the Central Basin Municipal Water District in California reportedly took the press release a step further by asking its corporate communications firm to create a fake news outlet to publish positive coverage about the district.
Called the News Hawks Review, the online publication — made expressly for Google News, as indicated in the header of the site — gives the appearance that it’s an independent site, if a sloppy one.
From its “about us” page:
NewsHawkReivew.com is an Internet News Site with up to date news articles. If it’s news we do our best to report it. Our genuine desire is to report first, Hard News, second, Breaking News and then Feature News. We will do investigative reporting whenever we can. Our news articles are written by experienced and highly knowledgeable staff of reporters and writers.
And its hired writers are indeed professional writers and journalists. But as Sam Allen of the Los Angeles Times points out, with taxpayer funding, it’s a vicious cycle of self-interest:
District officials have portrayed the arrangement as innovative, noting that people who type “water conservation,” or “recycled water” on Google News are now more likely to find stories about Central Basin.
Valerie Howard, the district’s public affairs manager, said the news stories have resulted in a “huge spike” in traffic to Central Basin’s main website and proved far more effective than traditional press releases.
But open government advocates said the district is blurring the line between promotion and real news.
After all, how would you feel if you knew your tax dollars weren’t going to fix pipes, but to fix coverage? (As governments unleash data in an effort to improve transparency, it seems they’re bound to find data they don’t like. But that’s a story for another day.)
Consider these recent headlines:
- California Bay Delta Project – A Key To California’s Water Infrastructure
- California Water Agency Calls for More Stimulus Spending
- Central Basin Says Governor Brown Is Right On Water Policy Importance
…which would show up in Google News alongside next to an independent outlet like SmartPlanet.
Adding to the drama: the fact that Central Basin has a history of negative press coverage, stemming from public corruption charges and questions about its finances in recent years.
Ethical qualms aside, the report shows that water utilities and other municipal bodies have a tough challenge on their hands: when you’re the only game in town — often with little or no competition — how do you show your customers that you’re ahead of the pack?
How do you make them care?