The Maven: Good Public Relations Gone Bad - TheStreet

The Maven: Good Public Relations Gone Bad

News releases from Dell and Overstock show the worst of the world's second-oldest profession.
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The Business Press Maven usually goes light on public relations people because I suppose it's the job of the world's (second) oldest profession to present reality in a slightly altered state.

If a flack wants to call down up, or up down, boys girls, or girls boys, that is his or her prerogative. (And burden, but that is another story.)

In any case, it is left to the journalist to help decode the underlying truth for you, the investor. And when a journalist swallows the hook, line and sinker of a lame press release, I am regrettably roused to anger and must give the bad little journalist an official Business Press Maven "back of the hand," my signature booby prize.

But this week took investors into such weird press release territory, basically handled all right by the business media, that I'll set my sights for once on the flaks. It is all in the hope that investors will realize that a little bit of polishing the truth is to be expected, but press releases that make you giggle or even slap your knee are probably a less-than-ringing endorsement of the company's current state of mind. (

Eh, loss of mind.

)

In other words, if management looks fall-down ridiculous even with the help of high-priced mouthpieces filtering or dressing up reality on their behalf, The Business Press Maven doesn't have words to describe how carefully he would tread.

So which do you want to see first, the bad or the ugly?

I'm always partial to the ugly, so let's start with a press release that seems like it's from Mars, but is really from

Overstock.com

(OSTK) - Get Report

.

The headline says it all: "Overstock.com Celebrates Receipt of SEC Subpoena."

That just what The Business Press Maven has always said: When the Feds come knocking, break out the bubbly.

Party time!

Just kidding, of course. But the press release wasn't.

The language that followed the headline was, in a word, weird. And overly boastful and needlessly pugnacious. And plain peculiar. Ask me more and I'll tell you what I really think.

None other than Overstock.com Chairman and CEO Patrick Byrne is quoted in alarming detail in the second paragraph. Excerpting even a portion of what he says would raise it toward the level of reasonable discourse. So let me just summarize quickly: Byrne talks about "whispering" and "hokum" and about how the system of corporate voting and governance is a "hoax." He speaks about "miscreants" who file delaying motions, so-called journalists who get marching orders from hedge funds. Then he wraps it all up by applauding the fact that the SEC wants to haul away a bunch of information.

Of course, last year Overstock filed a lawsuit alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy to manipulate its share price. Overstock alleges that research firm Gradient Analytics was in cahoots with short-sellers, including Rocker Partners, which owns a small stake in

TheStreet.com

(TSCM)

, publisher of this Web site. Both Rocker and Gradient have denied wrongdoing.

TheStreet.com and James J. Cramer, its co-founder and major shareholder, were subpoenaed in February in connection with an SEC investigation of Gradient following Overstock's allegations. The SEC has agreed that it will not, at this time, seek to enforce the portions of the subpoenas issued to the company and other media firms, including

Dow Jones

(DJ)

, that concern communications between journalists and their sources.

It is, in short, a press release for the press release hall of fame. Eh, shame.

And remember, Mr. And Mrs. Investor: these words are filtered. Perhaps consider what is being said and done off the cuff.

A lesser offender was

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

, a quality company that has hit a rough patch and came out with a major groaner of a release. The SEC should investigate Dell for transporting bad jargon over state lines, because here is what the company said when it reported disappointing first-quarter numbers this week: "The shortfall in earnings vs. previous guidance was driven primarily by pricing decisions in the second half of the quarter that the company expects will accelerate revenue growth in the fourth quarter."

Then: "During Q1 we continued to execute on our strategy to reinvigorate growth by making investments in our support infrastructure and product quality and by accelerating price adjustments," said Kevin Rollins, Dell's Chief Executive Officer.

Let's put that into The Business Press Maven awful jargon translator and see what comes out: "Dude, you're getting a cheap Dell because we're slashing prices as fast as we can."

Almost all the business journalists who covered Dell saw this transparent attempt to bury the truth in wordiness. News of how the earnings were hurt by price cuts made headlines or mentions in leads. So what was Dell up to? What are they afraid of? Dell has obviously been a top-notch company, and maybe everyone in the communications department caught something communicable so they had to hire some temp who accidentally swallowed a bad corporate dictionary. Or learned the trade at Overstock. Who knows?

The point is: It's usually the blind belief in press releases that has The Business Press Maven at the throats of journalists. But when the releases are so over the top that even journalists can't mess them up -- well, put it this way: The Business Press Maven would not invest his hundreds and hundreds in savings in any such company.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial website twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.