The last time the media fell for a Yes Men-affiliated hoax press release, it inspired a discussion about speed versus accuracy in journalism. This week the AP was duped by a fake announcement that GE had decided to donate its $3.2 billion “tax refund” to the U.S. government, but it has caused less introspection on the part of the press. In fact, the hoaxsters feel that kind of self-examination misses the point.
In order to achieve its goal of being the source of legitimate news reports, the fake release was draped in the trappings of authenticity: it was hosted on a website that looked like GE’s media site and had a very similar domain name. (GE’s news is online at genewscenter.com; the release was online at genewscenters.com.) The hoax announcement mimicked traditional corporate press release language and formatting, and included quotes from the company’s CEO, as well as the GE logo and standard GE boilerplate.
Yet for all of those efforts, the release screamed hoax from headline all the way down to the contact information at the bottom that directed reporters to one “Samuel Winnacker,” a person who has never appeared in a previous GE press release.
The GE release looked like a real announcement but was littered with so many red flags that it seems outrageous any journalist could begin to churn out an article without realizing they were being duped. I initially wondered if its creators hadn’t really thought things through. So I did the only thing a journalist trying to accurately report on a fake press release could do: I called the fake PR guy. (For the record, I also contacted AP business editor Hal Ritter to talk about the wire service’s procedure for verifying press releases. He referred me to AP’s PR guy.)
I rang the number for Samuel Winnacker. He called me back and admitted his real name is Justin Wedes. He is a member of US Uncut, the group who claimed responsibility for the hoax in conjunction with the Yes Men’s Yes Labs. He said people have rightly noted “the amazing unbelievability of that press release.” He believes it was mistaken for the real thing because people wanted to believe that a corporate giant could actually behave this way.
“This is something that struck a nerve with Americans, be they AP reporters or everyday citizens, because it is what we should be hearing and what we need to hear to fix our economy,” he said.
As for the AP’s error, he sees the same factor at play.
“I don’t attribute [AP’s mistake] to the speed of the news cycle,” Wedes said. “We have very intelligent reporters out there. I attribute it to the fact that this is what people wanted to hear.”
I imagine the offending AP reporter would disagree.
But where I see typical journalistic error, Wedes sees hope.
“When people took a careful eye to [the release], they really did realize that it offered so much of what Americans want to hear from GE,” he said.
With that in mind, let’s give the release a good Fisking and see how many (aspirational) red flags we can identify.
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has informed the Obama administration that the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.
This section offers two immediate clues that this is not a genuine release. First of all, GE did not receive a tax refund in 2010. (It did however earn tax benefits totaling $3.2 billion, according to the New York Times report that set off scrutiny of the company.) Anyone who took a moment to check the recent controversy would discover that the issue was the fact that GE paid nothing in taxes. There was no refund to give back.
Secondly, this kind of groundbreaking, precedent-setting news would not be plugged into a press release and e-mailed out like a normal earnings announcement. If GE had decided to give over $3 billion to the U.S. government of its on volition, you can be sure that the story would have been offered as an exclusive to a high profile media outlet like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. (Fun game: imagine the contents of the Journal editorial that would accompany this news )
“We want the public to know that we’ve heard them, and that we know many Americans are going through tough times,” said GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. “GE will therefore give our 2010 tax refund back to the public and allow the public to decide how to spend it.”
Immelt acknowledged no wrongdoing. “All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal,” Immelt noted. “But Americans have made it clear that they deplore laws that enable tax avoidance. While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns - we also owe something to the American people. We didn’t write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws, and now we’d like to share those benefits. We are proud to be giving something back to America, and we are proud to set an example for all industry to follow.”
Well, at least the hoaxsters spelled Immelt’s name correctly. I’ll also give them credit for drafting a section that strike a balance between responsibility to shareholders, concern for liability (“Immelt acknowledged no wrongdoing”) and humility drenched in pomposity. These are the hallmarks of canned CEO quotes. But to hear a major CEO talk about using legal loopholes while listing the specific number of foreign tax havens used by the company is, well, beyond believable. Which was exactly the point, according to Wedes.
He told me the quotes from Immelt were meant to present him as the CEO they want him to be. Wedes said the quotes were drafted to reflect a “concerned and attentive CEO who is watching out for not only his shareholders and himself, but for his country That’s the CEO who is speaking in this press release. A responsive CEO who cares about his country.”
Over the coming weeks, GE will conduct a nationwide survey to determine how the company’s $3.2 billion returned refund is to be allocated. The survey will be conducted both online and offline, and will permit the public to weigh in on which of the recently-enacted budget cuts they would like to see reversed.
Wait a second, didn’t we just read that the money was being donated to the U.S. Treasury? Now it’s going to be allocated according to a public survey, and the company is going to tell the U.S. government where the funds need to be applied. Wow, is GE also going to demand that the Treasury Building be renamed the GE Treasury building and ask for a commemorative plaque out front?
When I pointed out this strange contradiction in the release, Wedes complimented me for being so perceptive.
“You will have an exclusive,” he told me, still paying the part of the media manipulator.
He explained I had unwittingly hit upon the next phase of their plan: to ask the American people where they would like the imaginary $3.2 billion to be spent. Have a look at this video, which is online at Samuel Winnacker’s Vimeo account:
“The hoax was just the opening—the real work has to be done now,” Wedes said. “Changing the climate is not a one day thing.”
In tandem with the gift, the company is also announcing a host of new policies to restore public faith in the GE brand, including a commitment to keep American jobs in America, and to create one U.S. job for each new job created abroad. The ambitious plan will overhaul accounting systems to allow public transparency and phase out the use of tax havens in five years. “Given my recent appointment as President Obama’s Chairman of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, it is no longer appropriate for GE to engage in practices that, whether by fact or perception, are at odds with the greater good of the nation,” Immelt said.
GE is an international company with operations in over 100 countries, and “more than half of GE’s revenues come from outside the United States.” It’s not going to retreat back into the United States. Nor is Immelt going to link his advisory position with the Obama administration with the way he runs his company. It’s quite the fabulism.
Again, Wedes says this section is about how things should be.
“This is creative activism; this is activism of the mind,” he said. “This is saying we want to emphasize the things that we believe and care about, even if they aren’t the things that are being emphasized in corporate America.”
Immelt outlined several concrete steps he would take to push for modernized tax policies that reflect the realities of the global economy. “I will personally ask President Obama to work with Congress to require country-by-country reporting by multi-national corporations of the sales made, profits earned and taxes paid in every jurisdiction where an entity operates. Instead of moving money via “transfer pricing,” corporations ought to pay taxes in the jurisdictions where profits are actually made. If Congress is able to establish standard industry-wide solutions, GE will close our tax haven operations abroad, including our subsidiaries in Bermuda, Singapore and Luxembourg.”
And for his final act, Immelt will change the way multinational corporations are taxed in the U.S. (Hey, maybe they should rename the Treasury Building after Immelt )
This release was not just about GE giving back its (imaginary) tax refund. It was an announcement that the company will be completely overhauling the way it does business, while at the same time pressuring the President and Congress to overhaul corporate tax and accounting systems.
That leads me to a final criticism of AP’s story: its writer failed to fully capture the monumental news contained in this, the most amazing corporate press release in history.
Correction of the Week
“An entry in the ‘What’s on Today’ television highlights in some editions on Tuesday, about a new series on WE that stars the R&B singer Toni Braxton, misstated its title. It is ‘Braxton Family Values,’ not ‘Braxton Family Battles.’”- The New York Times