Fake news in shipping: The ethics and effectiveness of combining PR with publishing

Fake news: corporate or individual opinion masquerading as independently vetted fact. Apparently it’s all the rage these days. We sit back, shake our heads, and wonder how rational, educated, human beings could be fooled by information (or content) where there is no editorial integrity or ethical standards as to how this material is produced.

And then we open up (physically or digitally) our favourite maritime news. We know some of this is PR driven and, let me be clear, PR is important. It gives businesses and executives a voice. Getting help articulating your message is perfectly acceptable. But there are a number of shipping ‘news’ publications which are, bluntly put, PR companies publishing their clients’ corporate messages as impartial industry news.

Glaring issues of ethics aside, from a corporate marketing perspective, this model has the potential to damage your brand and restrict your market reach in a number of ways. The boom in digital marketing has changed the way you need to use and distribute your messages, but it also increases the risk to your brand if you are not being honest.

Trust me, I’m in PR

You meet with a PR company, they tell you you’ve got a great story to tell. Sure, they can get you published. In fact, they have a great relationship with a reputable maritime publication. They can guarantee coverage. In fact, their relationship is so good that this publication will also distribute your article on the interweb and Facebook (trust me…I’ve seen them trying…it may as well be the interweb). It’s likely they’ll recommend that you back up this coverage with a bit of sponsorship. It’ll be great. People, many people, have told them it’s huge. Great quality. Complete success.

They may not disclose to you that they, in fact, own this publication. Your PR guy and the editor might even be the same person. If this is the case (again…ethics aside), content quality control is likely to be low. You’re paying them to get media coverage; it’s in their financial interest to run whatever is produced (the thin edge of the fake news wedge perhaps?).

So, for your brand, what are the implications of this scenario? The whole point of producing content is to influence a defined target audience. Usually the people you do business with, or those you hope to. To influence the market you need high calibre ‘quality’ content, but this is only worth producing if it goes to the right people. A good PR agency, with no ulterior motives, should know this. A good PR agency will try to get content placed in the right publication to achieve this.

If quality is King, distribution is Parliament: Where are you driving traffic?

If the point of PR is to raise awareness and start conversations, where you drive your content is vital (i.e. you want it to go to the people worth having conversations with). If your article (or press release) has your PR agency as the point of contact, you are essentially promoting the people you are paying to raise your profile.

On social media where you drive traffic is even more critical. The point of social media is to engage with your audience (it’s why it’s called ‘social’ media), the conversations are the key metric of success. If your PR agency ‘tweets’ or ‘posts’ your content on their social media sites they are essentially driving digital traffic and potential client conversations away from you. You are paying someone to reduce your digital footprint and marketing presence. Think about this. For your brand it’s important.

In the ‘old days’ (circa 2012) getting published was the end game. You relied on a publication’s distribution database to deliver your message into the market. But social media has changed all this. Company social media accounts/databases now dwarf the reach of most publications (Maersk has over 140,000 LinkedIn followers).

Due diligence, marketing, and sales

Unfortunately, as a consumer of services, you need to do your due diligence on your suppliers. Are they working in your best interests, or theirs? Are they promoting their sales, or yours? Are they really looking after your brand?

I was offered an advertising contract with a major maritime publication guaranteeing a number of editorial features or articles as part of an advertising package. I insisted this clause be removed for two reasons. First, I would never want to put an editor (who I respect greatly) in the position of having to put anything in a publication they didn’t want to. Secondly, if my articles weren’t good enough to be published on their own merits, I needed to get another job.

Ethics define our personal and professional lives. If your PR company is ‘self-publishing’ then you should be asking yourself what this says about your brand (and theirs). In a nutshell, if a PR agency also runs a publication they are taking you and their readers (perhaps your clients), for a ride. And a piece of advice, if that’s the path you want to go down, just put your ‘article’ on your social media platforms and your website – your clients and stakeholders are more likely to see it there…and you can save on your PR costs.

Graeme Somerville-Ryan

Graeme Somerville-Ryan is the Marketing and Business Development Director (Asia) for the international law firm Wikborg Rein. He also consults to businesses in the shipping, insurance, oil and gas, and financial services sectors on marketing strategy, communications, social media, and profile development in Asia.


  1. Graeme

    Thanks for a well written, articulate and right to the point article about this kind of shameless unethical behaviour. There is at least one such “PR Company” and “Magazine Publisher” in the maritime space which operates on this basis every day. Their modus operandi is to gain access to a shipping executive’s office by seeking “an interview” for a certain “independent shipping magazine”. The article then appears as ‘independently written’ editorial – but the main purpose of the interview is to pitch said executive with PR opportunities and to gain a PR client. It happens time and time again. But so many gullible and niave executives in the shipping industry still do not understand the difference between editorial and PR ! Can you imagine this happening in the wider business community? Would the Bank of England allow the Editor of the FT to be a governor of the bank? Could the editor of Computer World write editorials about Apple and also be a paid executive of that company? What could help put a stop to this low, unethical behaviour is if the industry came together and set a standard for genuinely independent editorial coverage – and professional unconflicted PR companies. I know one respected shipping journal which has said it will not use PR guff from one such PR firm – which also runs an ‘rival’ magazine ! But we now need a wider industry debate to outlaw this kind of behaviour and show the wider world that shipping is not a ghetto industry but can meet basic standards of unconflicted , ethical and corporate behaviour. Ed Ion – Director of Helix Media, independent shipping industry PR firm which does NOT own a shipping publication.

  2. i am, awkwardly i have to admit, a bit confused here. Fake news is to report something that has not happened as if it happened, or change deliberately fundamental details of the event.

    Editorials on the other hand, market commentaries alike, are views of the authors and thus, not equivalent to news.

    I don’t see why there is an ethical question over PR firms publishing the views of their customers in owned publications, nor do i see a conflict of interest therein, with the exception of possibly attempted fraud.

    Banks are a different universe though as they play with other people’s money and central banks are primarily responsible to maintain confidence in the currency thus in my view there is no equivalent for juxtaposition.

    Finally it strikes me that the author states that suppliers should be working on the best interest of their customers. Agents should do. Suppliers are profit maximisers and customers are utility maximisers. Transactions are arms length, so the assumption of ad infinitum common knowledge and rationality are crucial here.

    The only message i got is steer clear from PR firms, but then again its a marketable service so we let the market decide, yes?
    pls correct if my understanding is flawed. tks

    1. Hi George. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Ed has summed up the situation pretty well. I think good PR firms are just fine ( I run one…full disclosure). But it’s important to look beyond just ‘getting published’. Consider where your content is placed, what good this does your brand, and how it can drive traffic to your sales teams. Getting placed in a PR owned/edited publication, which promotes itself over you, is of little use to you or your sales reps.

      1. Tks both for time to respond. Ed below, recalibrated my context which was a bit different than your intended.
        On your remarks though i agree fully. Differences in PR service quality should, ideally be reflected on service fee and market reputation of relevant providers. Maybe it will take some time to move to a setting different than distress-only PR made via ad-hoc public announcements by a generic acct manager at a specialist firm who is simultaneously the PoC. Let alone a properly functioning market for PR services in the shipping sector.

  3. George : I think you may be confusing editorials , the like of which you usually see on Op/Eds pages, with strategically placed ‘news items’ which are undeclared PR puff pieces placed in magazines/websites, etc masquerading as independent news but which are owned PR firms? Of course it’s legitimate for anyone (a PR person or indeed a journalist) to profer an editorial opinion. But I think the article is talking about PR people who operate publications and indeed events ,etc which are portrayed as independent to the market but which in truth are owned by the PR firm and used by that firm to push a PR agenda . The two are totally incompatible and that is a black and white conflict of interest. To make it clearer, how would you feel if you knew this organ was actually owned by Frontline or BP but that information is kept from the readers? and what would be your reaction if you knew the writers on here were actually paid to do PR for those companies ?(It’s not and they do not, by the way)

  4. Fake News as a concept is nothing new to anyone involved in publishing nor to any media junkie for that matter.
    Synonyms for ‘fake news’ abound: prior to the GRU taking ownership we’d call fake news articles infomercials or advertorials – promotional advertisements disguised as news articles, often labelled as such in the reputable publications (and considerably less sinister than GRU’s tripe).
    It is understandably a challenge to find the optimal balance between the triad of news, commentary and advertising, as everyone involved seeks to achieve their own goals.
    The publisher needs content that will sustain and expand readership in order to justify advertising rates that will pay the bills and provide a profit.
    The PR firm must get the client’s brand profiled to justify taking a fee for the service.
    Meanwhile the journalist strives to produce articles of interest to the publisher’s readers to secure an income.
    For a publisher agreeing to run an article featuring a specific company’s innovative product, service or newsworthy development, it is common to find an advertisement nearby for that very same company.
    Is that unethical or unprofessional?
    Unethical, yes, if there was a ‘quid pro quo’.
    Unprofessional? Unless there is a way to maintain professionalism in the absence of ethics, that question answers itself.
    Each of the points raised by the article and in the comments it generated, taken together, serve well to illustrate that the world of publishing and PR is a complicated one, ever more so should such activities be housed under the same roof. The potential damage to a company’s image from PR missteps can be both severe and lasting.
    Therefore the importance of putting a serious effort into the due diligence process when selecting a reputable PR company cannot be stressed enough.

  5. May I remind you all that you are now sailing very close to the wind here – either man up and name names and face any consequences (rather than play around like giggling girls in a playground) or else back off. The stream of unsubtle allegations and lack of any ‘facts’ to back them up is pretty much what Donald Trump is being hauled over the coals for. Several of you ought to know – and be – better than this.

    1. Well said, sir. Veiled character assassinations are the domain of the meek. Shipping, and their PR firms, requires a spine.

    2. Llewellyn B-H is right ; let’s not lower the tone of this excellent discussion although I am delighted the debate is taking place. The original article talks about a general trend which has seen the world of PR blur with the world of independent journalism. The article itself does not ‘name names’ . Naming names, name calling and asking people to “man up” is immature and indeed the stuff of playgrounds. Several respondents here have gone off topic on the central issue which is the increasing phenomenon of PR companies masquerading as independent journalists in the shipping media. I have encountered it on at least half a dozen occasions in the past couple of years. The companies which do it do so in a barefaced manner and they know they are in the wrong. I used the words “low”and “unethical”. In a mature way the orginal article raises a legitimate question : Should a PR company gain access to potential clients by masquerading as a journalist , offering editorial coverage, advertising opportunities, etc.? Perhaps Llewellyn would like to enlighten us all on his position on this question ?. Is it right or ethical for a PR company to sell its services to the market on the one hand and then at the same time pose as frank and fearless independent journalists running independent media companies?. It’s a straight forward yes or no question. I am pleased to report that many of our clients and senior leaders in the markets have come forward these past two days to remark on this debate. It’s good that they are aware of this pernicious and unethical practise. So the word is speading…

  6. This all seems a bit obvious. Of course you should investigate the size and makeup of the audience you’re reaching before agreeing any PR contract that promises promotion in the media. That’s what media kits and independent circulation audits are for. Would any corporate really pay for an ad without knowing who might see it? Moreover, would any corporate really hire a PR company without researching the quality of its product, executive and their ethics? If so, public relations is probably the least of its worries.

  7. Peter Arnold, Veterinarian. Live Animal Exporting from Australia by sea. Your recent articles by Dr Lyn Simpson, although good to read, were completely false and constitute Fake News. 98% of all voyages are successful and can be confirmed by ALEC, Australian Live animal Export Council. Splash have had my replies yet dont publish them. Dont let fact interfere with a good story. Dr Simpson is a fake. she only talks about the failures. it was her job to fix these.

  8. Splash 24/7 have run a series of articles written by the ‘fake’ Dr Lyn Simpson. The editor has had repeated articles sent to him pointing out this and he being able to verify this by contacting ALEC, Australian Live Exporters Council. He has chosen not to, but run with the ‘Fake News’ created by Dr Simpson, because it makes good reading.Her articles were rubbishy, poor science, extremely selective by only quoting the 2% failures and not the 98% successful voyages.Livestock transport by sea from Australia using Australian laws guidelines and rules has been a most successful transporting industry in recent times.Nowhere have we seen the growth and development of the industry from ship design , facilities, outcomes and international benefits as we have seen in the Live Animal Exporting industry by sea and air.Animal welfare is the key to success and has been.It is absolute rubbish to read and hear from Dr Simpson. She failed in the livestock shipping industry and is now unemployable in this industry.She was dismissed from the Victorian Department of Agriculture because of her inability and views. She has an agenda, seeking notoriety trying to print these lies and falsehoods where ever possible. Did you read her article on the ‘Transmission of Antibiotic Resistant bugs’ by treating animals at sea on ships, then off loading these animals into the food chain of other countries.It was ‘science fiction at its best’
    Logic tells you that the industry has grown over the last 30 years or so because the ‘animals are fit and healthy’ and worth the money on arrival.Its an industry that thrives on animal welfare.
    Please Mr Grant Rogers,Editor Asiashipping section of Splash 24/7 give your readers a chance to hear the other side, that is not fake news. Dr Peter Arnold, Veterinarian,40 years experience Live Animal Shipping.

    1. Dear Peter, a few points…

      1. We don’t publish Lynn’s writing as news articles and never have, they are contributions to our site based on her experiences.
      2. We’ve never blocked any comments on her articles, so you are welcome to make comment (within 10 days, then comments on all articles are locked to prevent spam).
      3. My name is Grant Rowles, not Grant Rogers, and I am not the editor of this site.
      4. You’ve never once emailed me in a professional fashion formally asking to publish an article, you’ve just chosen to take an approach of ranting and name calling using terms to describe people as “nuts” and “juvenile”.
      5. I imagine some of your comments above about Lynn are incorrect and could be considered libellous.

      Far from advancing your cause, and that of the live export council, I’d suggest you could be doing more harm than good.

      Kind regards,
      Grant Rogers.

    2. The views expressed above by Mr. Arnold and the reply by Mr. Rogers (sic) bring to the surface the impact of media bias and the importance of having an independent press.

      It further highlights the difference between news, commentary and promotion.

      Yet perhaps more importantly, here we see the need for critical thinking when reading any article, and the necessity of checking the sources of the material as well as the agenda of its publisher.

      When bias is allowed to seep into article content, truth suffers.

      Regarding animal welfare, it is safe to say that ALEC’s bias is toward the opposite end of the spectrum as compared with Dr. Simpson’s.

      Has any non-biased independent study been conducted on livestock transport by sea? If so, related references here would be useful.

      Mr. Arnold has challenged Dr. Simpson’s allegations by citing ALEC statistics. Dr. Simpson’s most recent article published on 7 March 2017 does not cite independent studies, but rather provides eyewitness descriptions of her own experiences, supplemented by references to actions taken by the Israeli government to curtail livestock transport in light of animal welfare and safety concerns.

      The timing of Mr. Arnold’s allegation that Dr. Simpson’s article “Transmission of Antibiotic Resistant bugs” is science fiction is particularly interesting as it comes on the same day that Reuters reports that “Scientists warn that the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness in healthy farm animals contributes to the rise of dangerous infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as superbugs, which kill at least 23,000 Americans each year and pose a major threat to global health.” (“UK group expanding campaign to curb antibiotics in meat production” By Lisa Baertlein Tue Mar 21, 2017)

      Lastly, to claim that growth in the livestock transport sector is proof that animals are fit and healthy is neither here nor there. The US Department of Agriculture Surgeon General’s Report of 1986 shows that between 1900 and the 1960s the per capita cigarette consumption rate rose dramatically. History has taught us that this did not contribute towards improvements in anyone’s health or welfare.

  9. Dr Peter Arnold’s vitriolic and personal attacks on Dr Simpson for describing her experiences while working in the live export industry contravene the veterinary practitioners code of professional conduct.
    To make things even worse, Peter Arnold has chosen to use alternative facts. Dr Simpson was never employed by the Victorian Department of Agriculture and was never dismissed from there, as Dr Arnold claims. She did work for the Australian Commonwealth Department of Agriculture but was not dismissed.
    I have always found Dr Simpson to be a very honest and compassionate person and a credit to the veterinary profession. Her contribution to animal welfare was recently recognised when she received an award from Voiceless.
    It should also be pointed out that Dr Arnold claims to have done about 20 live export voyages in 40 years, while Dr Simpson did well over 50 voyages in 10 years that were recent. The weight of experience and knowledge of live export conditions is clearly in Dr Simpson’s favour.
    Dr Arnold should apologise to Dr Simpson for his attacks and discontinue his prolonged and unreasonable harassment of her.

  10. I’ll jump in here, given the number of comments on general content and the ‘live animal’ shipping sector as well.

    I’ve been enjoying the content of this publication (online) specifically because it steers clear of “puff pieces” put out by numerous other maritime journalistic…’efforts’… for lack of a better word. There are a number of online magazines in the US that are simply regurgitating a PR news piece from a shipowner, shipyard, vendor, etc… and while it may be news to many in a very basic sense, it’s a selective bit of information. While I’d be happy to specify the exact name of one such popular publication, I’m also a poor slob that is inherently allergic to attorneys handing out lawsuits for libel. No matter how factual or correct I am and willing to publicly state the truth, I’ve little time or money to deal with a long drawn out litigious affair in court. Lawyers are paid by the hour, after all!

    But lets just say if you are a maritime magazine and your monthly content and daily emails are primarily PR releases from various industry folks that also happen to be (surprise!?) your ‘customers’ that are also (surprise again?!?) your advertisers, are you really serving the industry and your readership very well? Then of course to muddy the waters even further, your publication conducts a few big industry conventions and industry gatherings that are “sponsored” by many of your advertisers (oh, and they happen to be huge shipyards and supply vendors?! Amazing how that works, eh?).

    I get pretty bored by reading the exact same story, word for word, published in several different maritime online “news sources” that are simply a PR release from a yard, vendor, contractor, shipowner, etc…but all placed in a online publication that, when viewed by itself, read like a story written by an actual journalist. But wait…I read this same story 5 minutes ago in another email release….what??

    It’s why I subscribe to Splash 24/7 and enjoy the articles and opinions. That is another facet I’m attracted to, I suspect many others are, too. Publications that cultivate direct comments from readers and encourage sharing opinions are where we all learn “new stuff” we may not have been aware of.

    It’s why we are here, right?

    I discovered Splash when I first read an article about live cattle shipments on an American carrier, a company I know well and have observed first hand on a daily basis. i was also involved directly with the movement of live cattle in and out of one particular Hawaiian Port on more than a few occasions. I took issue with some of the collective content of the story i saw and submitted more than a few comments. But otherwise, the stories in general were very informative and interesting to read, especially for those I imagine who have little or no knowledge of this sector of our industry. But I know nothing of the operations of Australia’s live cattle trade. Except that which I read here.

    But like so many other readers, I balance the information I read here against what I know from my personal professional first hand experiences. It’s what we should all do.

    To all the staff, writers, and editors at Splash, keep up the good work. You know your doing something right when your work is generating so much commentary.

  11. To my mind it is more to do with transparency relating to editorial integrity (or lack of it). I publish a newsletter but hope to be transparent in that it is an adjunct to the service I provide my PR clients and a service for readers in that is a compilation of edited technical news releases. I do think if one chases the advertising buck then there has to be a degree of transparency. Certainly, if a PR firm provides media buying services for clients as well and then ploughs a percentage of that spend into their own publications, then that is a real problem.

    I have in the past heard stories from people in industry that have come across PR/media buying agencies that would subtly indicate that if they didn’t advertise in their own magazines then they would find it difficult to get the story passed the editor. Completely unethical and something that does journalism, PR and the industry, a huge disservice.

    There is also the huge issue of advertising versus subscriptions. When a high proportion of the maritime media relies wholly on advertising and conference sponsorship rather than a subscription base (those that pay because they actually want to read it) then that too can play heavily on editorial integrity. Should a story leak that would be less than favourable to a publication’s major advertiser, then it would be a brave editor to run with it. The brave will then be up against the publisher who will ultimately look to find a more pliable editor. This also does a huge disservice to the industry in which they look to serve.

  12. Seems we haven’t moved too far from 2013, expect for putting names next to opinions.

    A quick google for “beware the shipping hydra” brings up an article published in The Wavy Line’s Bow Wave 668 (and perhaps elsewhere). I had it pinned up on the noticeboard next to my desk at a previous employer

  13. Let’s all make maritime PR great again! It does seem pretty tawdry and depressing – but how many here are members of the Chartered Institute of PR? They have a pretty clear Code of Conduct. So seems the answer and mechanism to protect from hawking of “advertising for editorial” exists, just that clients don’t care, the audience doesn’t know and the fox is in the hen house. It all seems a rather old fashioned, even quaint argument…given that real exposure and influence is now about algorithms, confirmation bias and filter bubbles, not whether someone will only publish your puff piece for their piece of silver.

  14. Hi Steve — what does the institute specifically say about PR firms owning media titles? Is it deemed ok?

  15. Hi Sam, well the CIPR Code and Ethics guidelines are based on words such as “honesty”, “openness”, “integrity”, “transparency”, “reputation” and “respect”…so guess it’s all a matter of perspective and of where the client and agency draw their lines. The Code does also say that there should be no concealment of the PR practitioners role. There is quite a lot to wade through…bit of light reading for the weekend

    1. I contacted said ‘news’ portal to establish whether the scam report was correct and whether the two journalists named as fake employees did actually work for Maritime Herald. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to hear back. It is a great story and one of the reasons we had to take the decision to make it impossible to copy and paste articles from this site.

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