PR News

Is PR to blame for fake news?

Is PR to blame for fake news?

PR and ‘Fake News’ should be natural enemies. PR done well relies on the publication of accurate information whereas ‘Fake News’, well… the clues in the name. SE10 intern George Parker questions how PR can remain unsullied when everyone else is dishing the dirt?

Over the past couple of years, the notion of Fake News has played an increasingly prominent role in Western Society. Two of the most famous recent votes: the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and Britain’s decision to leave the EU, were rife with ‘Fake News’ claims subtle, incredible and outrageous – but all with the power to skew public opinion.

In both cases, PR had a role to play. Campaign managers and journalists opted to represent arguments that often later turned out to be highly questionable or just plain untrue. Taking a politician’s word at face value is usually unwise, but journalists and media outlets often either uncritically repeated the stories, or even embellished them in order to promote their own agenda.

On the other hand, in the words of Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” So, can PR companies, who greatly depend on their reputation to secure clients and operate as a successful business, risk producing false pieces of information and encouraging others to publish those known falsities?

The obvious answer is no. That’s not to say it isn’t tempting though, as those that do publish fake news for political leaders are often rewarded with wide press coverage of their story. All publicity is good publicity, isn’t it?

PR must view Fake News as its greatest threat. Organisations that promote and publish Fake News now have social media at their disposal. This is a daunting prospect, as Facebook announced it has over two billion users, while studies by the Pew Research Centre and the New York Times suggest that 44-50% of American adults get their news from Facebook. Thus, Fake News spreads like wildfire, and can manipulate the opinions and therefore behaviour of the public, who believe it to be truth.

Nevertheless, Facebook has introduced a system of flagging fake stories as ‘disputed’ to make it clear to users that the story they are reading has been reported as false. However, the consistency of this system is itself disputed. This suggests that it is not in the interest of Facebook to be too draconian, as they sell advertising space and don’t want to be accused of bias, or restricting freedom of speech and press.

So how can PR help ensure only factual stories are published? Well, with the exception of refusing to promote pieces that they know are false, or their client cannot provide any evidence for, there’s only so much they can do.

Fortunately for PR firms, outside the world of politics, the vast majority of clients want information that’s published in their name to be accurate, so that the public trust the organisation and will continue to show it loyalty long-term.

If the public loses its trust in the media to report factual stories, what’s to say that PR can’t fill the void? The rise of Fake News could have just opened a massive market for PR firms to fill, with the public looking for organisations they trust to report the world’s news. PR could become a media channel in its own right and challenge others to also produce accurate news. So, could PR replace mainstream media’s role as the key provider of global and local news?

They certainly have the skills and the ambition, but it’s never going to happen. Journalists are responsible for rooting out stories of a far more diverse nature than PR. Furthermore, the symbiotic relationship between the media and the public runs too deep within society’s veins.

The public will continue to choose mainstream media outlets to report its news, whether that be via a newspaper or through a social media platform. Social media itself has radically transformed ease of access and the speed of release of new articles - meaning a story can be published just minutes after the event being reported on, happened.

Ultimately, only a clearer process of litigation against Fake News will slow its development. For the time being, PR must just keep on telling the truth to power as it has always done.

SE10 makes PR Week’s Top 150 for 2017
FT Future of Construction Summit