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How to fight fake news

Fake news is in the news, but how much of the news is fake, and is this a growing problem? Karen Lane, group managing director of agency Plus 1 Communications, thinks it is, saying that 2016 saw a rise in bogus news sites publishing misleading information or outright lies to drive web traffic. Lane adds: “Social media has exacerbated the problem as it gives false stories an even greater platform to spread quickly and universally. This reached a height during the Brexit referendum in Britain and the presidential campaign in the US, so much so that both Google and Facebook have announced a crackdown on fake news stories from their networks.”

The rise in fake news stories comes as a threat to PR, because publicists rely upon the authenticity of the media to generate positive coverage for clients. Lane explains: “When the media is not trusted, it devalues the impact of hard-earned publicity as it becomes difficult for the general public to discern fact from fiction. This is aggravated by the fact that so many people share stories without first considering the validity of them. It’s no wonder Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 word of the year.”

Agreeing with Lane that there is more fake news around these days, James Kelliher, CEO of communications agency Whiteoaks, points out that there two distinct types: “First, information that is intentionally fabricated and then presented to make people believe it is real news and second, information, often originating from a fabricated source, that is then amplified by more credible outlets and presented as ‘news’.

Describing these two types, Kelliher says that the first is primarily made possible by technology with its ability to make ‘fake news’ look like ‘real news’ and then spread it; the second is primarily driven by the hunger for speed over accuracy. “In many cases the desire be first with a news story overrides the necessity to ensure it is correct and accurate. This has always been a dilemma for mainstream media and is even more so for digital and social media channels.”

Good fake news

But not all fake news is bad news for PR in Kelliher’s opinion. “I do believe this represents an opportunity for PROs. The relationship between the media and PR professionals has always been based on a trust that we will provide true and accurate information, and the media will then report it fairly and professionally. With an increasing number of sources targeting the media with misinformation, we have an opportunity to increase our position as this trusted source to help journalists avoid the pitfalls of fake news.”

Listing other positives of fake news is David Frossman, head of media relations at agency W Communications: “I wonder if the brouhaha around ‘fake news’ is slightly overstated. Yes, we must be vigilant against fake sites spreading disinformation, but we should also remember that we’re in the business of telling stories and a great story goes a long, long way. There’s a famous line from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Certain sections of our media – hugely popular with consumers – would be dull without any artistic licence in their stories, from either grubby publicists (ahem) or talented ‘hacks’ looking to entertain readers. Who didn’t love hearing the myths surrounding dearly departed rock stars in 2016?

“Not everything needs to be so serious given that we hear enough bad news every day. We just need to remember the crucial difference between spreading blatant, politicised lies, and adding a healthy topspin to a great newsworthy story.”

Generally though, no news is good news, and fake news is particulary bad news for the communications industry. Below senior PROs offer advice for dealing with fake news.

How to fight fake news

From Helen Frear, senior PR at agency The CommsCo:

Make a crisis plan. “Whilst the age-old PR saying ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ still runs true to some extent, risks have to be assessed and managed. PROs certainly like to put a spin on a story, but there’s a hard line between angling a story and making one up. The advent of online news reporting and social media mean that fake news is easier to fabricate, and that it spreads like wildfire. Malicious or inaccurate content is easier to mitigate than conspiratorial content that has been created with an agenda. PROs need to add fake news scenarios to their crisis plans, and know how to address false rumours as a means of protecting clients’ brand reputations.”

From John Brown, group head of engagement at PR agency Hotwire:

Don’t get on the bandwagon. “More audiences are wiseing up to the serendipitous stunt where a brand just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Equally, random fantastical statistics about ‘cloud adoption’ or the benefits of knitted oven gloves are getting the cold shoulder. Finally, influencer campaigns need to be absolutely above board before shining a light on their, well, influence.”

Tell the truth. “The most powerful tool in the PRO’s arsenal is transparency. Proactively showcasing the truth can be a potent antidote should the poison of fake news hit a client’s press office. In fact, total honesty in a world dominated by fictional hearsay and emotional retweets should be at the heart of the best PR campaigns in 2017. In a post-factual era, the most useful tactic is to tell the truth.”

From Jonathan Hemus, managing director of communications agency Insignia:

Structure the right team. “With your senior team, scenario plan how you would address fake news. Agree roles and responsibilities and the steps you would take to initiate your company’s response. Make sure approval procedures are clear.”

Don’t rush in. “Whilst speed is vital, a kneejerk reaction to fake news can turn a small flame into a raging inferno. So agree pre-identified triggers based on the seriousness of the allegations, the volume of chatter and the influence of those talking to calibrate your response.”

But don’t dawdle. “If pro-active communication is required, communicate quickly and expansively. Address inaccuracies head on and fill online, social and traditional media with accurate information about your business. If necessary, consider using Google AdWords to ensure your message gets through.”

Focus on employee communication. “Deploy your own online channels so that key stakeholders hear directly from you and make employee communication a top priority. Retaining their trust is essential, and in addition, armed with facts about the situation, they can be your best advocates when talking to other stakeholders.”

The good news is that fake news offers PROs the opportunity to shine, by becoming trusted sources to the media. The bad news is that fake news undermines the public’s trust of everything in the news, but at least professional communicators have tools at their disposal to nip fake news in the bud.

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