The publicists for movies have long defined the outer edge of our profession, with outrageous stunts and feigned romances among stars. In fact, press agents in New York and Los Angeles got their start doing “column drops” of juicy tidbits into columns such as Page Six in the New York Post. But a campaign for the film “A Cure for Wellness” has gone over the edge of decency and intelligence to irresponsibility.
According to BuzzFeed, the PR folks at 20th Century Fox have acknowledged using fake news sites to promote the film from director Gore Verbinski. The movie is a “psychological thriller, the story of a young man who follows his CEO to a wellness retreat in Switzerland and discovers that the treatments being offered are not what they seem.” In fact, it is appropriate to question the psychological state of the publicists.
Among the fake news headlines: “Lady Gaga Halftime Performance to Feature Muslim Tribute,” which generated 50,000 shares, comments and reactions on Facebook, mostly via the conservative site Red State Watcher. Here’s another classic: “Utah Senator Introduces Bill to Jail, Publicly Shame Women Who Receive Abortions.” My personal favorite is a false story, “Trump Depression Disorder Classified as a Disease By American Medical Association.” This story ran on a fake news site, HealthCureGov.com, a promotional site for the film registered to 20th Century Fox, with links to the trailer for the film and other branding for the movie. There are other fake news sites set up by the publicists, including the Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian, Houston Leader, NY Morning Post and Indianapolis Gazette. Now these sites are disabled and direct you to the site for the film.
A statement by the film’s producers is simply stunning: “‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a movie about a fake cure that makes people sicker. As part of this campaign, a fake wellness site, ‘healthandwellness.co’ was created, and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.”
Just as Facebook and Google have stated that they will deny advertising revenue to any purveyors of fake news, the PR profession should do the same for creators of fake news. The media is now the least-trusted institution in America for Trump voters, at a stunning 15 percent, in part because of the swirl around that which is fact and what is simply opinion. The American democracy relies on truth-telling and transparency. At this time of alternative facts that can go direct to the end-user of information and then get shared with friends, the PR person has a greater responsibility than ever to stand up for honest and full communication instead of making a joke of what we do.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.