By Cole Braun
As you go through your Facebook news feeds, there is sure to be headlines for a variety of topics. Many of them are hilarious, or maybe even scary. But you, the public relations professional, know better than to believe everything. But what about your clients you represent, or your own family? Do they know how to differentiate what is based on fact and what is made up for the sake of increasing click-through reports? You can help them with this guide to addressing fake news and how a professional should deal with it.
The first thing to understand is that PR professionals have no business adding fuel to the fake news fire. We all know it has become a problem which is why we must take a stand against it. The Public Relations Society of America addressed fake news with an official statement in January, 2017 saying that, “Truth is the foundation of all effective communications. By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy.”
PRSA & The Code of Ethics
If you are familiar with PRSA, or the student organization, PRSSA, you know this organization established a code of ethics that members take seriously. The official statement on alternative facts, reflects on the organization’s code of honesty, saying that members, “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” If you wish to know more about the PRSA Code of Ethics, please follow here.
The PRSA Statement on “Alternative Facts” was released in January by the organization’s Chair of the Society for 2017, Jane Dvorak, APR and Fellow PRSA. After addressing how the society values its Code of Ethics, she finished by saying, “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”
One of the first things we as professionals must do is research. When dealing with information, we must ask, ‘Where did this come from?’ ‘Where does this link back to and who said what?’ You never jump into strange waters without a life preserver, or in this case, the facts.
A Rule of Three
Check your story three times before you take it seriously and hit the share button. You need to see how many people are saying the same thing and, if it is coming from a credible source. If the topic is breaking news, more than one publication will be telling the story.
CNN Correspondent, Brian Stelter said in his report, The plague of fake news is getting worse — here’s how to protect yourself, from October 2016, that there are three general categories related to misleading online information sites.
- Hoax Sites: completely fake
- Hyper-Partisan Sites: Some truth involved but stretched for the sake of the parties involved.
- Hybrid Sites: A mix of fake and fact combined to make a good story.
Whatever their purpose, these sites are not going away anytime soon, so learn to recognize them. Here are some tips found in the same article from CNN, shared by the Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard in a tweet:
- Search the source link on Twitter
- Google it
- Check Snopes
- Consider record of source
These are all excellent tips, and you can take it a step further with a Google search of the author’s name to see if they are credible as a reporter.
Open the Floodgates of Positivity
When it comes to combating the fake news epidemic, there are multiple recommendations on what to do.
If you have prepared for a crisis already, you probably have a pre-written response to a situation like this; that’s good! In February 2017, an article on How PR professionals should handle the fake news phenomenon appeared in Agility PR, written by Director of Media Insights Jim Donnelly. Donnelly conducted an interview with Hofstra University Professor and Bloomberg contributor Dr. Kara Alaimo on handling fake news. One question specifically addressed these situations with two or three rules to keep in mind. One positive measure is to have a response ready in advance, because when it comes to experiencing a crisis, every minute counts.
Alaimo also points out making sure you are keeping your client’s values in mind while communicating. If this is something you have been consistently doing before this incident, then it will be no hassle to reference back to, showing your clients’ interests are a priority.
A common question is when is it best to respond?
That answer seems to vary across multiple professionals. In the end, it just depends on the situation. For example, when it comes to internet trolls, it is best to just ignore them so they move along. But when their story trends, then answer with the truth, do not allow yourself to get flustered because that only feeds the trolls.
Alaimo share as well that, “you need to monitor carefully. The time to respond is if a social media post is starting to gain traction amongst stakeholders who are important to the company, such as customers, employees, investors, buyers, or board members.”
Another form of combating fake news is to “flood the media with a positive narrative.” In a November 2016 article for PR Week by Ilyse Liffreing, So your brand is the victim of fake news. Now what? Liffreing shares that you need to embrace the crisis and make the best of it, reversing the dialogue to positive content about what is happening with your brand. Share the truth and back it up with more positivity. If you don’t counter with good news, you could potentially open yourself up to more fake news.
The question now is, where are we headed as a profession in this new era of alternative facts?
The first thing to remember is accountability. Dan Guttridge from Ragan’s PR Daily notes in his March 6 article, PR pros’ role in the fake news epidemic, that we need to hold journalists accountable and “check credibility through facts and sources.” We can even take this a step forward and hold ourselves accountable for what we say to people and how we represent our brand as we traverse this terrain of fake news.
Guttridge shares some more amazing tips as you continue through his article. Here are some other key points we should consider as PR professionals,
- Do your own research.
- Stop reading headlines as facts.
- Expand your world.
That last tip is fascinating because he makes the argument to find some reputable journalist to read and take the time to learn more about what is happening. Speak to people who challenge your views and make you think.
We as PR professionals can provide the cure for the fake news virus. Know that if we keep our integrity and credibility, public relations will thrive in this fight.