Fake News: does PR play a role?

Fake News: does PR play a role?
March 23, 2017 Katrina Waldron

Sitting in the studio audience for ABC’s Q&A episode this week, it was hard not to notice a certain level of excitement as we sat patiently for Tony Jones and his panel.

With a younger audience (a quick studio poll of hand raises revealed most of us were under 40), the topic was on what is possibly the most overly used topic right now and, as some of the panelists later stated, is also the most misused phrase of 2017: ‘fake news.’

Given the state of global current affairs, it’s hard to avoid hearing about fake news. Certain world leaders use the phrase as a scapegoat, various news outlets casually throw it around to prop up their relevance; however there is rarely any context provided to what it means and how it has and will continue to impact the news consumers absorb.

This week’s panelists included the who’s who in the media industry – the research director First Draft News Claire Wardle; Labour frontbencher Terri Butler; former director general of Al Jazeera Network Wadah Khanfar; Liberal Senator Zed Seselja; and Journalist and broadcaster Mark Day.

Each debated what fake news means and who holds the responsibility to monitor, control and dispel the phrase. The conversation and points discussed made it hard not to question how public relations and strategic communications is involved in the issue.

Each day we are trying to push a specific message and goal for our respective campaigns, clients and issues that we stand for; but does this mean communications and public relations professionals are directly linked to the cycle of fake news?

Opening the episode in response to a question pondering how we can determine that the news we read and distribute is fact, Claire Wardle tried to provide clarity on the difference between misinformation and disinformation: “We don’t know what’s what – which is the mainstream media? Which is a blogger? Which is a friend sharing a rumour? It is really difficult to make sense of all of this. As a society, we are having to change and learn as technology is developing, and as consumers of information, we have to learn to be critical of the information we consume.”

Ultimately, she concluded, we are all considered to be publishers of content now, defined by the content we share or retweet across our social channels, or other mediums. Misinformation, she clarified, is “sharing content without checking the facts,” while disinformation is the systematic attempt to deceive. The difference lies in those people who have made a mistake, versus those people who are deliberately trying to deceive – an ethically thin line, especially in our careers as PR professionals or, as some would call us, ‘spin doctors.’

Looking at the work we do in PR, many people would conclude that we would occasionally be guilty of pushing the boundaries here. At times we would do anything to protect a corporate reputation, and may live up to the ‘spin doctor’ stereotype.

However, our role in the media and news agenda is certainly evolving. We no longer just think about how we can get a larger piece of print real estate, but focus on how we could potentially drive chatter and buzz on Twitter and Facebook and kick start a conversation about said brand, complementing the current news cycle. Is this generating a standalone form of ‘fake news’ where PRs are controlling or having influence over the news agenda?

I don’t think so.

Discussing Donald Trump’s recent accusations of wiretapping by the Barack Obama administration, Labor frontbencher Terri Butler took a different take on the state of news consumption and the misinformation ecosystem, pinpointing the issue on trust: “We have a trust problem that is more broad than any individual politician or journalist or commentator, and that is a problem with trust in institutions. People don’t trust the mainstream media, churches or unions… which is a big problem for democracy.”

Not only is this a problem for the publishing houses, but also us in the PR game. If general consumers don’t trust the mainstream media, the people we talk to and work with on a daily basis on behalf of our clients, how will we get them to trust the brands we represent?

Ultimately, our day to day job sees us work hand in hand with journalists and other influencers in the media to generate ‘news coverage’ for our clients. While many would say that the responsibility to dilute PR agendas lies with the journalists and editors, there is much more to be said about how PR professionals input to the news agenda. By ensuring we are providing accurate, well informed and genuine information to those outlets, relevant to that publication’s audience, we will all be able to play a small part in addressing the ‘fake news’ issue.

It won’t always be achievable, but if we overlay our approach with this type of ethical thinking, maybe, just maybe, we can shift the dated ‘spin doctor’ reputation to drive a more positive discourse around our role in the media and how we can work together to drive down the consumption of fake news.