How PRs can fight fake news

There’s a lot of fake news out there, which means there is plenty of work for PRs to do to combat it. 

As Richard Hillgrove, founder of PR firm 6 Hillgrove Public Relations  points out, there are two kinds of fake news: “First there are false stories published to make people believe something untrue or to get lots of people to visit a website. These are deliberate tall tales that are put online. 

"Second, there's the fake stories that have elements of truth to them, but they’re not fully accurate. Facts are removed which can totally change the context or meaning of a story. This is one of the most common examples of fake news.”

Below, PR experts offer their top tips for fighting all types of falsehoods, no matter how plausible they are and no matter how much traction they have on social media.

1. Go to a credible news source

Richard Hillgrove: “A good way to decode a piece of fake news is to see what other credible news outlets are also running it. If it stands alone in a vacuum then there's a high probability that it's manufactured lies.

“A big problem are the stories out there published purely to improve the SEO ranking of websites. The content might be lifted from a credible source and then deplagiarised by being slightly rewritten. The news might have been accurate when it was lifted, but then so often loses something in translation. It’s gone down a gradient in terms of its accuracy.

“The best approach is to not take everything at face value and get your news from sources that have a reputation you can trust.”

2. Uplift quality

Rachel Gilley, MD UK and president EMEA at agency Clarity PR: “To fight fake news and the spread of misinformation, as an industry, we need to uplift the content we know to be quality and ensure we look at stories with a critical lens. As we partner with clients and brands to tell their narratives, we need to take a collaborative approach with reporters, only working with trusted publications, so we're not fuelling 'fake news' hubs. With that, it's still a global issue and something that won't change overnight, we must continue holding each other accountable in the industry to reinforce that misinformation has no place in media."

3. Stay calm and collected

Jonathan Harris, account manager at reputation counsel Byfield: “Whilst in most instances, a fake news story will be nothing more than an inconvenience and no action will be necessary, it is important to media monitor the situation regularly in case the allegations start getting some attention.

“If your client starts to get approaches from journalists in relation to the fake news stories, the most important thing is not to panic.

“Stay calm and stay collected. Do not get baited into over-reacting. Deadlines for comment are usually arbitrary and your client has a right to reply to inaccurate allegations. Take a carefully considered approach.”

4. Take legal advice

Jonathan Harris: “In some circumstances, your client may wish to take legal advice. This can sometimes be helpful as the lawyers can work with you to create an appropriate case strategy, which will be dependent on the story and the severity of the allegations.”

5. Use creditable data

Olivia Bence, digital PR campaign manager at agency Marketing Signals: “There is no doubt about it, real data on a topic that is interesting to the consumer is a strong combination. In PR it’s important to be providing journalists with stories/materials that they can trust - not only does this build solid relationships with these journalists but it creates a trustworthy image for your client. This data can also be accessed through free online resources, such as ONS (Office of National Statistics) or Statista, seeing what is available on there can also spark an idea.

“My top tip is to do a bit of research around the topics that are being covered in your client’s field of work. After this, take a look at any trending topics through Google Trends, host a brainstorming session with your team to discuss new ideas. Are there any gaps within the media that your client could comment on and become a thought-leader? From there you can create an angle/campaign around a new idea with the credible data to support it.”

6 Be clear and precise

Jacqueline Mariani, managing director of agency jmm PR: “Always ensure that the information you’re sharing is clear and concise. If you’re including data, make sure it’s sufficiently and correctly sourced. The journalist therefore has the information ‘in black and white’ and you can back it up if it’s misinterpreted or used as part of a fake news story.”

7. Monitor all coverage

Jacqueline Mariani: “Closely monitor your client’s coverage to establish a fake news story soon after it’s published. Keep a close eye on social media too and identify any misinformation before it may be spread and transpire into a fake news story.“

8. Police yourself and your clients

Mike Harris, CEO of PR agency 89up: “The PR industry has a moral duty to do no harm: that means avoiding clients who want to spread fake news. And we need to ask ourselves if we are actively spreading information that leads to mistrust: Are we twisting narratives beyond reality, or promising clients the world by stretching the truth, rather than helping them tell their real stories better?

“Every PR has an important role to play to combat fake news, ensuring that we support media attempting to navigate an increasingly polluted information ecosystem."

9. Spot fake stories

Jen Macdonald, head of marketing at agency Glass Digital: “It is vital that all PRs understand how to spot fake news, especially if written by journalists from well known publications. However, there are often tell-tale signs that news is not real, including, lack of credible resources, figures that aren’t backed up by research or by-lines pointing to illegitimate companies. As PRs we must make a point to learn how to recognise signs of fake news, so we can do the opposite when putting our stories together.”

10 Use artificial intelligence

Antony Cousins, CEO of narrative monitoring tool Factmata: “PR professionals need to be thinking strategically about narrative and media intelligence. It’s not sustainable to spend hours of labour-intensive manual analysis researching trends to identify who created them or why. PR teams must harness modern technology like artificial intelligence to speed up this process and reduce the likelihood of harmful content going viral. AI can analyse data to identify narratives and determine stance and sentiment at scale, much faster than a human and potentially before a rogue narrative becomes a brand crisis.”

Philip Lynch, senior vice president, insights and consulting, at software company Onclusive: “Because the threat of fake news is unpredictable, monitoring must be holistic - covering every media channel from the biggest broadcasters through to the smallest social media platforms and forums. Real-time, data-led intelligence is critical to early detection and allows comms teams to assess risk accurately and to react immediately."

11 Challenge misinformation

Michael Lamb, creative strategist - earned media at comms agency M&C Saatchi Talk: “Our advice for brands is to not sit back and leave misinformation unchallenged, even if you’re not the one caught up in the argument.

“Have your experts ready to step up and address misinformation. And for long-term impact, brands should look to partner with relevant expert voices of authority to make sure the truth cuts through the misinformation noise.”

Lamb points out the damaging effects of fake news, which is why it is so important that PRs keep up the good fight: “Misinformation is disrupting the day-to-day lives of consumers, leaving many confused as to who and what to believe.

Just look at Spotify and Oatly which have have been caught up in misinformation storms for very different reasons. And last year, influencers were rebuked by regulators for misinformation.”

Lamb concludes: “Unfortunately, misinformation doesn’t just impact the brands in question, it can affect consumer confidence across a whole brand category.”

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