Elephant rides at Fair shines a light on new social-media “news” platforms

(Image in "Have Trunks Will Travel" story)

(Image in “Have Trunks Will Travel” story)

If you type “Nevada County elephants” into Google, the search results include a slew of news stories about the ongoing debate on whether elephant rides should be allowed at the County Fair in August.

The “Nevada County Fair Board responds on Elephant Issue” statement is the first item (from Yubanet.com). TheUnion.com’s version ranks second, and another from the Sacramento CBS affiliate ranks fourth. Other regional news outlets follow, including a national one posted on AOL.com. This story has gone national.

Google also lists search results for online petitions, such as “Keep Elephants Out of the Nevada County Fair” – a powerful tool for opponents. The Fair has argued that a majority of the signatures on the petitions do not come from locals; opponents have argued that the local signatures are still significant.

As it turns out, “Have Trunks Will Travel” also is capitalizing on social-media marketing, with press releases that resemble news articles or “stories,” as social-media marketers call them. It is an emerging public-relations trend.

In this case, one “story” that turns up in the Google search rankings reads “America’s Elephant Ambassadors to Visit Nevada County.”

At first glance, it reads like a news story, with a newsy lead and quotes that support “Have Trunks Will Travel”‘s practices – albeit with a positive spin.

The webpage also has a “quick facts” box and colorful pictures – just as an online news article would.

The article even points out that “the invitation to the fair did not come without controversy,” suggesting some balance.

For “context,” it points to the San Diego County Fair as “doing their homework and approved the Have Trunk Will Travel contract even after ‘animal rights’ protesters stormed their meetings en masse.”

Then it goes on to label opposing animal-rights groups as “radicals” and its own business as a “little Mom and Pop operation” – a not-so-subtle spin.

If you look more closely at this “story’s” Web address, or URL, it comes from a service called “PitchEngine.com” – not a news outlet. A disclaimer at the bottom of the story (that you need to click on) reads: “PitchEngine™ is not responsible or liable for the accuracy, validity or quality of this content. Users are solely responsible for the facts and accuracy of all information posted and shared on the site.”

A NEW ERA OF P.R.

PitchEngine has been called, “one of the PR industry’s most transformative innovations” and is credited with “heralding in a new era of public relations.”

Founded in 2008, PitchEngine was first created as an alternative to the traditional press release and push distribution process, as PitchEngine.com explains. Instead of sending documents through email or news wires, for the first time, communicators could easily package-up their own branded content into a single web page called a social media release.

The design makes it easy to share your “story” on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media. Your post automatically goes to search engines.

In the past, a press release often was sent directly to a journalist, who scrutinized it – or relabeled it. Now it goes directly into cyberspace. “Let the reader beware.”

“PitchEngine lets the brand act like journalists,” as one reviewer explains.

“Google News is now picking up releases going through their system which gives the free service great reach and online PR cred,” adds another reviewer. Another review is here.

To be sure, I see value in services such as PitchEngine.com – to promote a new brand of craft beer or new line of clothing, for example. Or a pitch about “Gold Rush Days” in a small Wyoming town.

But social-media readers need to be careful not to confuse marketing messages (or marketer’s “stories”) with news articles.

As we’ve written before, the internet is changing how we communicate.

A video is here:

About jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.
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