Google PR, disguised as news

ben-blogThe news that Google is launching a new coupon service in Portland isn’t news.

It is PR.

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By Ben Jacklet

You probably know by now that Google is releasing its version of Groupon in Portland. I heard about it from a Google PR rep who called saying she had a news story for the magazine. “Hugely innovative company gets into coupons” didn’t strike me as much of a news story, but a quick search through Google News (where else?) reveals that at least  501 articles have been written on the subject since the “embargo” on this information was lifted by Google (who else?).

I don’t mean to imply that Google’s business actions are not newsworthy. This is a company that has changed the world in profound ways by making vast amounts of information easily available to the common person. But coupons? Please. Coupons were old news in the 1960s.

The problem with Google is, for all of its laudable ideals about open access to information, the company is exceedingly closed with its own information. Google controls its corporate PR just as zealously as do Monsanto and ExxonMobil. When the news story involves the marketing launch of a new Google product, the information flows freely from company to journalist to the web, where it is searched for and found through Google. When the news story involves electricity use at a Google server farm, user privacy concerns, or other less promotional subjects, Google does not comment, and the information flows less freely, if at all.

The pitch I received the other day from Google was really a marketing ploy. It was not a news story. This fact was verified the following day, when a Google rep showed up at our office with free cookies from the coffee shop being used to launch the new Google product in Portland (I turned him away). News stories generally don’t come with free cookies. PR blitzes do. The one specific question I asked the Google PR rep about Google’s coupon deal involved revenue sharing between the local business and Google. How exactly does this arrangement work, and how does it differ from Groupon? Didn’t get an answer.

As a business journalist, I spend a lot of time dodging PR campaigns disguised as news stories. When it’s Google calling, my interest perks up. Perhaps we will finally get some relevant information about Google’s August 2010 purchase of Instantiations and the resulting work being done in Portland. Or the server farm in The Dalles. Or exciting new open source initiatives in Oregon. No such luck. The last news story Google shared with Oregon journalists involved Google Hotpot, the company’s response to the success of Yelp.

This is a company that controls many aspects of the online advertising world. An entire industry of search engine optimization has sprung up to help businesses sell more products by climbing their way up the Google results chain. Google is in control. Does Google really need free publicity from media organizations that are struggling financially, partly because of the free information revolution that Google has led? Apparently Google does need us. It takes effort to contact 501 journalists, plus give them cookies.

The release I received from Google came under embargo. This is not particularly unusual. All sorts of reports and releases arrive under embargo, where journalists implicitly agree not to publish until a pre-ordained date and time. Google’s mandate was that nothing about their new product could be published until May 31, 2011 at 7:30 pm Pacific Time.

It’s one thing when a government agency sets an embargo to give all media outlets equal access to a key development, or an organization chooses to release a significant report at a certain time. It’s quite another thing when a company enforces an embargo to generate maximum publicity for its new product. But in this case it worked. By 7:31 pm on May 31, 2011, the web was being dutifully flooded with the breaking news that Google is launching a coupon service in Portland.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business.

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