What would you do if a journalist called you out for lifting published content and repackaging it as part of a bylined article?
The prudent first step would be investigating whether it’s true.
When journalist Zack Whittaker accused Check Point of “borrowing” content from a WIRED article for a corporate byliner, Ekram Ahmed, head of PR for Check Point, took this course of action and discovered that it was true.
To Ahmed’s credit, he recognized that the sooner he came clean with the journalist, the sooner he could put the unfortunate event behind him. With this in mind, he wrote the following treatise to Whittaker:
Hi Zack — just left you a voicemail.
I’m head of PR, USA at Check Point. Recently, we pitched a by-line, thought leadership summary about election hacking by our agency on record, Method Communications. It has come to our attention, regrettably, that after it was pitched, that 62 words out of the total 1228 words were not given proper attribution to a 2018 article written by a journalist at WIRED.
At Check Point, we take our content and its creation extremely seriously. To learn that someone in our organization accidentally left out an attribution is a serious matter and we consider this as such. We’ve launched an internal query here at Check Point to get to the bottom of this to ensure this never happens again. We have notified WIRED and we wanted to be upfront with you about what happened.
We value our relationship with you and the broader media community and this one unfortunate incident does not represent our values, and how we treat external information used by our content writers. We are very sorry. We look forward to working with you on future, exciting pieces. Please don’t hesitate to call me about this if you want to chat further. In fact, I’d prefer to chat via phone if you have the time.
Breaking down the note for lessons learned:
- Trying to rationalize the act as less egregious by pointing out that “62 words out of the total 1228 words” were plagiarized does not help the cause. There’s a great line in a Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report, “Are we supposed to applaud because the dog that fouls our lawn is a Chihuahua rather than a Saint Bernard?”
- I’m glad Check Point takes its content “extremely seriously.” The journalist doesn’t care.
- What’s to gain by blaming its PR agency Method Communications? I’ll come back to Method in a moment, but this type of deflection only weakens his position.
- Perhaps most damning, it takes 172 words before we land on the apology, “We are very sorry.”
Right when you think the saga will come to an end, the Method CEO weighs in with a ruh-roh moment:
I suspect Method didn’t run these words by Check Point for review and approval. Apparently, Mr. Parkinson didn’t like the feeling of the bus’s undercarriage going over him at 65 miles per hour.
Finger-pointing between a client and agency in public never ends well. Now that I think about it, it rarely ends well in private either.
Even if Ahmed believed at the time that Method took the short cut, he should have taken accountability with a short note along the lines of:
I’m head of PR, USA at Check Point.
Recently, we pitched a bylined article about election hacking. It has now come to our attention that the byline included part of a 2018 WIRED article without proper attribution.
I want to apologize for this mistake. We have also been in touch with WIRED.
To ensure this doesn’t happen again, we are digging into the details and will take corrective action. We recognize our relationships with journalists like you are built on trust.
If you’d like to discuss this further, please don’t hesitate to call me.
Less is more.
A final question to consider —
What is the PR agency’s role in vetting a bylined article from a client?
I used to believe common sense and instincts should rule the exercise. I’m now thinking a plagiarism checker should be part of the process.
“It was a dark and stormy night when I entered the lab.”