Ever since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the USA, we have become familiar with the phrase fake news. Initially used by the President as a way of deflecting negative stories, it has now become part of our lexicon when referencing the media. Misinformation has always been spread by parties seeking to create mischief, even discord, but in today’s digital world it spreads quicker and further than ever before.
The rise of digital media has not diminished our desire for news – in fact we are watching, listening and reading more than ever but in a different way and through different channels. News outlets publish shorter, more mobile-friendly stories with seductive (click-bait) headlines that drive advertising revenue. This glut of ‘content’ production makes it harder for readers to discriminate between truth and fake news as news sources try to keep up with the thirst for ‘stories’.
Indeed some people are making a living out of the production of made up stories. The BBC reported last year on fake news writer Christopher Blair (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/the_godfather_of_fake_news) who describes what he does as an art form. Sometimes this is harmless click bait to excite readers but at its worst, it is cynically targeted and contaminated material designed to influence public opinion. For example research has shown that during the US Presidential election 30% of the news circulating was false; and 10% during the UK referendum in 2016.
The by-product of fake news is, understandably, a more sceptical public and the demise of trust in media sources. The European Broadcasting Union undertook research in the UK which showed that:
- 59% believe what they hear on the radio
- 51% believe what they see on TV
- And only 47% believe what they read in print
All of which has led to various initiatives such as Google News’ partnerships to combat misinformation (https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/google-news-lab); it has also led to the launch of various fact-checking businesses such as https://fullfact.org/, Snopes and Red Pen.
But from a PR perspective what can we do to guard ourselves against the potential impact of fake news. A good example is the story that went viral some years ago about Heineken sponsoring dog fights. The reality is that an event organiser forgot to take down some Heineken banners in a venue that was later used for a dog fight. The company had to act quickly to rebut the story consistently, persistently and clearly; and confirm its repugnance of dog fighting.
Misinformation damages our reputation and fake news has to be taken seriously. Here are some guidelines:
- It is often through social media that we see fake news being spread so ensure you have a reliable monitoring system and crisis procedures in place to counter stories.
- Before you share something on social media, do a keyword search to see what is being said about the topic so that you do not associate yourself with fake news by mistake. Use fact checking sources such as Snopes or Red Pen to help you understand the accuracy of a story.
- Pre-empt misinformation by ensuring your own information is of high quality, accurate and referenced if needs be.
- Build up the profile and authority of your experts through white papers and public speaking so that they are credible and trusted.
- And build your trust-worthiness by ensuring that your business is consistent in being honest, reliable and competent. It takes time but will help in the battle against fake news.