Fake news is on the rise and it is important to question how it will affect an industry such as public relations, which is based on the dissemination and communication of accurate information from one party (the client) to the public.
2016 was a year of many things but the latter half of the year and the intense US Presidential election placed fake news, ironically, on the news agenda. Although the term has been around since the 90s, the growth of the Internet and social networking sites (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) has allowed people to exchange information on a much greater scale than ever before. The digital age has advanced the line that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.
The past year has seen a sudden rise in stories that were blatantly false, misleading or at least partially untrue. The President of the United States has used the term himself throughout his election campaign and has brought the debate over the impact of fake news to the fore.
PR’s greatest enemy?
If fake news is the business of spreading skewed or false information, how can an industry such as public relations, which manages the spread of accurate information between an individual or an organisation and the public, remain unaffected?
Fake news takes on a whole new dimension online. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016, 51% of people surveyed said they use social media as a source of news each week and more than a quarter (28%) of 18-24 year olds say social media is their main source of news.
Social media continues to grow as a dominant news distributor, fuelled in part by the ability of its algorithms to “vet” what people read based on their interests. This can lead to people increasingly seeing only the news they prefer, making the task of accurately educating the public about a broad range of issues more difficult.
PR professionals seek to gain proactive, positive coverage for clients across a variety of key publications, or manage the spread of information when crisis situations occur. The lack of trust in the media that has been growing since the early 2000s has only been exacerbated by the onslaught of fake news. The PR industry relies on the authenticity of the media to communicate its clients’ good work and expertise to the public. But fake news devalues the impact of hard-earned coverage as it becomes difficult for people to discern fact from fiction.
The odds seem stacked against us but PRs across the industry remain true to their profession and have discussed methods to best combat the growth of this phenomenon. In issues management situations it is important to be thoroughly prepared and continue to assess and manage reputational risks. Fake news scenarios can be approached in a similar way. They can be added to crisis plans, with proactive and reactive methods to address false rumours that could damage client reputations.
A focus on employee communication remains crucial. The most up to date and accurate information should be passed onto employees who can in turn act as advocates if caught unawares by the media, rather than spreading misinformation. Transparency remains a powerful tool.
Proactive methods of combating fake news can involve upgrading monitoring systems, setting thresholds for when fake news is likely to impact the target audience and ensuring adequate procedures are in place to escalate responses.
In any crisis situation, a quick response time is required. Aligning relevant operational areas of an organisation to counter fake news effectively and quickly is key. Teams should be put in place and a structure agreed beforehand to react promptly and in the most appropriate manner.
The last and perhaps most obvious method of avoiding the detrimental effects of fake news is greater education of the public to equip them to better identify fake news and not engage with it. The temptation of using fake news to capitalise on public hysteria to drive agendas may be too strong to resist for some. Vigilance and persistence with accurate information is crucial.
Despite the growth of fake news and the dangers it presents, it is important to remember that the extent of its impact is questionable. It has yet to be, and is unlikely to ever be, quantified. Engaging with the public is key and by the very nature of the PR industry’s work, we must continue to develop methods for dealing with crisis situations of varying nature.