In case you missed it on Monday, Volkswagen published a press release declaring that the US branch of the company would be rebranding and changing its name to “Voltswagen” as a way to highlight their move toward producing electric vehicles. Multiple news outlets jumped on the story, including the Associated Press, reporting the change claimed by the company. VW’s stock even rose a bit on the news. But it turns out that it was all just a prank. Even though it was still several days short of the traditional April Fools activities, it was all a joke according to a company spokesperson. And now all of the press outlets who ran the story are up in arms, blasting Volkswagen for duping the public by creating fake news. (AP)
An unwelcome prank: Volkswagen purposely hoodwinks reporters
“The Associated Press was repeatedly assured by Volkswagen that its U.S. subsidiary planned a name change, and reported that information, which we now know to be false,” company spokeswoman Lauren Easton said. “We have corrected our story and published a new one based on the company’s admission. This and any deliberate release of false information hurts accurate journalism and the public good.”
The story emerged Monday after a news release was briefly posted on a company website and then disappeared, but not before catching some eyes. CNBC, which declined comment on the hoax, is believed to be the first major news organization to report it as legitimate news.
The AP wrote a story about it Monday after its reporter was assured by Mark Gillies, a company spokesman in the United States, that it was serious, Easton said.
If the Associated Press was “disappointed” in the prank, the reporter from USA Today who covered the story was downright angry.
Dear Volkswagen: You lied to me. You lied to AP, CNBC, Reuters and various trade pubs. This was not a joke. It was deception. In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a misinformation problem in this country. Now you’re part of it. Why should anyone trust you again? https://t.co/1rcKT7p0u5
— Nathan Bomey (@NathanBomey) March 30, 2021
This entire episode is blowing up in VW’s face right now, and I suppose they deserve it. I like a good April Fools prank story as much as the next person, and I guess VW’s original joke was kind of funny. Maybe? Whether you laughed or not, however, this wasn’t handled very well.
If the company had simply posted the press release on their website without officially saying anything and waited for some reporter to find it, that would have been one thing. If any news outlets had run with the story without verifying it, the joke would have been on them. VW’s executives would have been able to point to the fact that it was almost April 1st and asked everyone to grow a sense of humor.
That’s not how they handled it, though. Pretty much every outlet that covered the story contacted a spokesperson or executive at Volkswagen and asked them if the press release was serious. They were assured that it was so they proceeded to publish. Having worked for a media outlet for some time now myself, I frequently have to seek confirmation or comment from people before proceeding with a story. If someone just blatantly lied to me, even as part of an effort to pull off a “prank,” I’d be rather put off about it myself.
The fact that a batch of fake news wound up making the rounds in some of our larger news outlets this week wasn’t the fault of the press. (Well… not this time, at least.) The blame for this falls in the lap of Volkswagen, and if their reputation as a trusted source of information (specifically information about their own company) takes a beating as a result, they have no one to blame but themselves.