Back in 2010 the Central Basin Municipal Water District of California's hired PR company, the Coghlan Consulting Group, was faced with a problem. "All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the Agency is a very difficult challenge," wrote company head Ed Coghlan in a letter to the Water District, "With news staffs reduced (and often inexperienced) it is difficult to create stories that speak to the accomplishments of Central Basin."

Back in 2010 the Central Basin Municipal Water District of California's hired PR company, the Coghlan Consulting Group, was faced with a problem. "All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the Agency is a very difficult challenge," wrote company head Ed Coghlan in a letter to the Water District, "With news staffs reduced (and often inexperienced) it is difficult to create stories that speak to the accomplishments of Central Basin."

Luckily, Coghlan had a solution: "How about our own news outlet?"

And so, NewsHawksReview.com was born. The professional looking news site is indexed by Google News, and there is no indication that it's actually a front for the PR company. Indeed, in the about section, News Hawks describes itself as:

"An Internet News Site with up to date news articles. If it’s news we do our best to report it. Our genuine desire is to report first, Hard News, second, Breaking News and then Feature News. We will do investigative reporting whenever we can. Our news articles are written by experienced and highly knowledgeable staff of reporters and writers."

Yet, as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week when it broke the story, it remains unclear who actually writes the stories — or if the site has any news staff at all. "Some people quoted by News Hawks Review said they were unaware of its relationship with the water district," adds the Times' story.

The nature of the other stories posted to the site — paid for, filler, legitimate, in between — is also unclear.

The water district has been the subject of several negative stories in the past year, including investigations into allegedly misused travel expenses and public corruption.

While some public officials have slammed the district's $200,000 spending spree for glowing coverage, and its blurring of the press-PR line, district public affairs manager Valerie Howard's response to the Times indicates the district doesn't feel red-faced.

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"[She] said the news stories have resulted in a "huge spike" in traffic to Central Basin's main website," reports the Times, "and proved far more effective than traditional press releases."

But even some fellow PR executives think Coghlan went too far.

Marisa Vallbona, a PRSA board member in Los Angeles, is one of them.

The PR Daily quotes from a letter Vallbona passed on to the Times:

The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create fake news disguised as independent media coverage is an egregious breach of ethical standards for public relations. No matter if the effort has produced a ‘huge spike’ in traffic to Central Basin’s main website, as its public affairs manager asserted, the initiative still flouts the public’s right to be properly informed of the motivations, biases and intent of the information it is presented.

As a public relations professional, I am concerned with the message this effort sends to taxpayers. Central Basin seems oblivious to the fact that by producing its own news content on a website that is presented as an independent news organization, it is operating in a disingenuous manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.

Google rightly frowns upon efforts to disguise public relations as independent news, and so does the Public Relations Society of America, which espouses ethical communications practices via its Code of Ethics. We advocate for businesses and organizations to preserve the free flow of unprejudiced information. Central Basin’s News Hawks Review website is the antithesis of this ethical communications tenet.

In other words, it's one thing to write an advertorial, and label it as such, and quite another to label it as news.