media update’s Aisling McCarthy looks at how fake news is affecting the public relations industry.

A fake news crisis affects the PR and media relationship

Fake news is rampant, under the guise of ‘alternative facts’ or ‘satire’, all designed to drive web traffic. This can take the form of misleading click-bait or cleverly crafted articles designed to look real.

A fake news crisis can lead to some scary scenarios for PRs. Owing to the fact that fake news is so well optimised for social media, a single mention of a brand within a fake news story could travel incredibly fast without the opportunity to challenge it.

media update approached Focal Points Analysis* to analyse the pervasiveness of the term ‘fake news’ in traditional media (print, broadcast, online). The research indicated that although most apparent online, the term is poignant in all media.

From October to November 2016, there was a significant jump from 111 mentions of the term online, to 1014 mentions. The reference continued to grow in ubiquity online, reaching its peak of 3127 mentions in February 2017.

Since then, the prevalence of 'fake news' has begun to decline, however it is still predominant in online media, with 1876 mentions in April 2017.

You can view the graph in our gallery at the bottom of the page.

This increase comes as a threat to the PR industry because PRs rely on the authenticity of the media in order to generate positive coverage for their clients, says Pippa Galbraith, senior account manager at FleishmanHillard, in a blog post.

“Fake news has profound implications for anyone with a PR concern. Any good PR officer will have good relationships with the media – with trust flowing from both sides. This is where the problem with fake news comes in – it obliterates trust.”

The relationship between PR firms and the media is what makes public relations work, says Robert Gray, CEO of Livewired PR. Therefore, he says, it is necessary to ensure that relationship remains strong, especially in times of crisis.

“PR firms ensure that they have a consistent, trusted and reliable relationship with the media. Lies and fake news destroy trust and place future news in question immediately.”

Shady clients and agencies have taken advantage of the situation and are spreading fake news themselves, says The Friday Street Club MD, Emma King.

“We have seen the example of UK agency Bell Pottinger that recently have been accused of spreading fake news and paying Twitter trolls to spread misinformation in order to benefit local interest groups and political players.”

Quality assurance is more important than ever

The key to fighting fake news is to improve the relationships between public relations and media. James Kelliher, CEO of Whiteoaks, says in an article that this is a relationship that needs to be based on trust.

“The relationship between 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.”

King seconds this, highlighting the important role the media has to search for and share news that is vital for the public.

“PRs need to be even more vigilant that we are creating and supplying news and content that is credible and that works to assist, rather than hinder, the jobs of our media colleagues,” says Kelliher.

Gray suggests that anyone in public relations should ensure they send press releases that are accurate – to ease the burden journalists are under.

“The media are under huge pressure – so [PRs must] deliver relevant, newsworthy, well-constructed, reliable material which the media can use.”

Crisis management planning is key

Fake news crisis management forms a large part of the public relations industry, and it involves planning for things to go wrong. However, as King points out, the trouble with a fake news crisis is that it is not based on reality, so it can come out of nowhere.

“I would suggest a really stringent media and social media monitoring plan. If your brand or business is the target of fake news, it’s imperative that this is picked up, responded to, and managed as quickly, honestly and thoroughly as possible.”

However, at the end of the day, King tells media update that it is the responsibility of the PR to produce honest work.

“I have a firm belief that any work we do must be transparent, authentic, and founded in truth.”

Gabraith says that it is necessary for PRs to avoid being tempted to run with a story, simply because it benefits the client.

“Now, more than ever before, PRs need to work with honest and good intention; question everything, think critically, verify all information, be scrupulous about facts of any stories you promote, and hold journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling.”

The good (fake) news

Despite all its cons, Kelliher says that fake news isn’t all bad news for the public relations sector.

“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.”

Fake news has also allowed a sharpening of skills among public relations professionals, Gray tells media update.

“Fake news and untruths have become so common that it has attuned the PR firms to be increasingly alert.”

Media houses are under an incredible amount of pressure and King says that with shrinking newsrooms and an ever increasing demand for information, now is the chance for PRs to step up.

“PR has, for many years, suffered from a perception of spin-doctoring – it’s our chance now to turn this around and build even stronger relationships with media where they can trust and rely on us to supply information that is credible, vetted and true.”

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Interested in how to avoid fake news as a brand? Read more in our article, Four tips to help brands fight fake news.