Public Relations Tactics

Guard the shrimp bowl!: How to spot fake press passes

April 26, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA.  All rights reserved.

From the May issue of PR Tactics

By Joan Stewart

If you’re a freeloader with a fake press pass, don’t even think of trying to sneak by Lori Weintraub,  APR.
After more than a decade managing public relations for the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation in Hollywood, Fla., she’s turned into a grizzled gatekeeper at the foundation’s glitzy special events, always on the lookout for moochers posing as journalists.
Weintraub learned how to spot a fake years ago.  A man and woman pretending to be from the media got into the Feast Among the Grapes, the foundation’s annual food and wine tasting fund-raiser in Miami that attracts up to 1,400 people. Each arrived separately and presented credentials for what turned out to be two phony media outlets. Once inside, they joined up and enjoyed the rest of the night eating and drinking at one of the hippest happy hours in town, never intending to write about it.
“We didn’t realize it until after it had occurred,” she says. “You definitely live and learn.”
Then there was the couple claiming to be from Black Entertainment Radio in New York that showed up to cover an event sans camera or notebook. She turned them away.
“Now we have a media list,”  Weintraub says. “Anyone who wants to cover an event has to get clearance beforehand. If they’re not on the list, they’re not allowed in. I’ve turned away more people than I can count.”
Fake press passes abound at restaurant and theater openings, sporting events, music festivals, political rallies, celebrity parties and even crime scenes. With a decent computer and color printer, almost anybody can crank out an official-looking pass within minutes. 
If that sounds like too much work, you can claim to be a freelancer and, for $85, become a member of a group calling itself the National Press Association. Within 72 hours of paying your membership fee at, the NPA will rush you your press pass with neck band, a wallet card, a membership certificate and even a rearview press identification decal. But when you apply, you don’t have to present any supporting materials to show that you’ve written or sold any articles. (The NPA didn’t respond to e-mails from Tactics seeking comment.)
Spotting phonies is particularly difficult given today’s media landscape where freelancers abound, not to mention determining which bloggers should receive media credentials.
Regardless of what business you’re in, if the media cover your event — particularly if you’re serving great food and featuring big-name entertainment —you need to know how to deal with gate-crashers.
Or, in some cases, the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Janet Perrella-D’Alesandro, director of public relations and association marketing for Anthony J. Jannetti, Inc. in Pitman, N.J., says that not so long ago, reporters and editors who worked for another publisher tried to obtain press passes for a medical conference her company hosted, intending to exploit intellectual property.
“In these cases, which we caught in advance after some research, the editor was forming his or her own competing publication in the specialty,” she said. “I can’t help but be disillusioned.”
Experts offer these tips for making sure that media entering your event are who they claim to be:

• Always insist that, well before the event, the media apply for press credentials that you issue. Otherwise there’s no surefire way to spot a fake. Once you have a list of credentialed media, use it at check-in.  

• Be vigilant about your due diligence.  Ask freelance writers and photographers for their Web site URL, and copies of published articles or photos.  At the giant BookExpo convention held each year, freelancers applying for press passes must show clippings of articles or reviews they have written specifically about books or the publishing industry.

• If you’re in the travel and hospitality industry and you host familiarization trips, you can insist that freelancers must be members of the Midwest Travel Writers Association or the Society of American Travel Writers. If you’re suspicious, post questions on your industry’s Internet discussion boards and ask your colleagues for feedback on a particular freelancer.   

• Staff the sign-in table at your events with seasoned pros, not administrative assistants. The veterans are usually able to recognize bona fide media.

• If bloggers want press credentials, read their blogs.
Peter Himler, principal with Flatiron Communications LLC and a blogger, says certain blogs have the capacity to drive national and global awareness online.
“Others are negligible in terms of their influence,” he says. “Today’s PR pro must know which are which.”

Lastly, Himler says there’s one more way to spot a phony media person.
“He or she is typically the first one to the shrimp bowl.”

Joan Stewart, a.k.a. the Publicity Hound and a former newspaper editor, publishes “The Publicity Hound’s Tips of the Week,” a free e-zine on how to generate publicity. Subscribe at her Web site at


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