June 28, 2018
The terms ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have been thrown around for months now, and while your definition of what constitutes fake news may differ depending on your political leanings, the fact that these terms have risen to the top of national discourse is concerning. As PR professionals, it’s hard not to take a step back and examine how our role as communicators influenced the rise of fake news and alternative facts.
As PR pros, a large part of our job is communicating key messages and factual information to journalists and other influencers in order to inform the public about a topic, issue or news. We develop finely-honed talking points and learn how to pivot to stay on message and get our points across. We are shaping our own narrative on a certain story. And as we work to convey that story, it’s easy for a PR professional to cherry-pick facts that support our narrative or avoid questions from journalist that don’t align. That’s where PR professional can indirectly end up contributing to fake news as we may end up presenting only one side of a story. Spin-doctors and flacks will even bend the truth to get their point across, giving all public relations professionals a bad name in the process and contributing to the fake news process. The good news is most PR professionals lead with the truth and try to tell a well-rounded story to avoid spreading falsehoods.
Additionally, as PR professionals, we’re fortunate to engage with the news on a daily basis. A large part of our job is to figure out what stories are newsworthy, what angles are being covered, what stories are missing from the narrative, and how certain topics are being covered. By nature, PR professionals are some of the most media literate people out there. However, it’s easy for us to forget that many people outside of the communications profession don’t have the same passion for news that those in the public relations or journalism fields do. While we might understand the difference between an op-ed and a staff-written article, most people don’t and weigh the messages and facts conveyed in both equally. If you don’t understand the difference between an opinion piece and a news article, how can you separate fact from fiction or opinion? If you don’t know how to determine if a source or publication is credible, how can you identify fake news from real news? These are the skills we’ve honed through news monitoring, target research, and conversations with journalists and we should be working to share this insight with our friends in other industries.
Finally, thanks to the rise of social media, PR professionals have more channels to promote their clients’ messages on without having to go through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. the press) whose job it is (was?) to verify and communicate the news. While PR people love this new ability to communicate directly with the audiences we want to reach, it has blurred the lines between what is news and what is opinion. Without traditional media gatekeepers, it’s easy for fake news to run rampant and leave audiences unaware that what they’re reading is inaccurate.
The problem of fake news is not an easy one to solve. But, by being aware of how public relations contributes to the debate, we can look for opportunities to educate others and to ensure we don’t contribute to the problem.