Fake news has gone mainstream. The President of the United States, MPs, and Channel 4 programmers have spoken out against it. Facebook and Google, arguably two of the most powerful companies in the world, have come under fire because of it. Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year at the end of 2016, and Facebook very recently began flagging ‘disrupted’ news articles being shared on the platform as part of its Journalism Project to tackle the issue. There is no denying that fake news is a hot topic, but how does its existence threaten the PR industry, and what can we do to stop it?
It’s likely that most of us have seen at least one of the high-profile incidents of fake news making headlines in recent months – from Donald Trump referencing a non-existent terror attack in Sweden, to the Russian media falsely reporting the death of the Queen. But whilst fake news has existed as long as credible news, the rise of social media has impacted the reach of these stories, the velocity at which they can be spread, and therefore the threat they pose to influencing public opinion.
It’s no surprise to see that mainstream media outlets are beginning to confront the issue head on. Channel 4 scheduled a whole week of special programming on the subject last month, whilst The New York Times recently unveiled a new ad campaign with the importance of the truth and credible journalism at the centre of its message.
But with journalists under increasing pressure to chase clicks, and newsroom resources shrinking, it has never been more crucial for those of us in the PR industry to recognise the role we play in the distribution of news, and to ensure the information we provide is both accurate and high quality. After all, when mass media outlets are threatened, and their credibility questioned, so is the PR industry. The effectiveness of earned against paid media is one of main reasons businesses continue to invest in PR efforts year after year, so it is important that we protect the value that we offer.
On the other side of the coin, it’s also important for PR professionals to encourage their employers or clients to own the stories that are told about them. The impact of fake news within the political arena has already been widely debated, and it is not hard to imagine large corporations falling victim to defamatory but entirely fabricated news stories in the near future.
The way businesses are required to communicate has changed dramatically within the last 10 years, but it’s important for brands to ensure their PR representatives have the tools to navigate this new landscape. On a very basic level, PR professionals need to be able to respond to false stories in a swift and effective manner. But beyond this, businesses should also be engaging with influencers, developing content plans, and talking to the media on a regular basis. Of course, a business can never be in total control of their public narrative, but they can certainly influence the way they are represented.
It is going to take a huge amount of effort from the media, governments, big tech companies and the PR industry to tackle the issue of fake news and promote media literacy. It’s encouraging to see steps are already being taken to raise public awareness, but through collaboration, accuracy, and quality content, the PR industry can play a vital role in turning the tide in 2017.
By Lauren Welch