Long before social media, Winston Churchill once said that “a lie can be spread halfway around the world before the truth has had a chance to get its pants on”.
There’s a lot of talk about fake news. Ask anyone what it means and they usually immediately reference Donald Trump as the American president has developed a habit of dismissing anything that he does not like as fake news. If only it was so easy, but in the fast-paced world in which we work with 24 hour online news, some might say it is getting hard to differentiate between what is true and what is not.
Last autumn, initial reports of Tom Petty’s death proved premature. First, the news was that he had died, but then the story changed to his having been rushed to hospital with suspected cardiac arrest and had not died at all. Statements were issued from the Los Angeles DPD to try and clarify the situation. Sadly, the next day he did die and at his funeral, one of his daughters lambasted the media for the distress caused to the family by erroneously announcing his death at a time when they were rushing to the hospital to be with him.
Fake news intended to mislead, spread misinformation or hoax? Or the consequence of a media world where everyone is trying to break a news story?
Nowadays newspaper journalists are constantly monitoring social media to see what stories are out there and social media operators check other websites to keep abreast of the news. Journalists are under increasing pressure to break news stories or turn stories around quickly and the next moment, they are posted online.
So what are the lessons for us working in public relations, a sector within the media world that has been historically accused of ‘spin’? Firstly, it is about values, from a belief in our clients through to a commitment never to lie. Our role is to control the message with an intellectual rigor or persuasive argument that reflects the truth of the situation. Ethics matter to us.
Whatever we issue to the media is correct and factual with key messages that are clear and easily understood.
The second lesson is to provide evidence-based PR. It is all very well putting out a news release about financial results or a report to government, but you need to provide the documents too. If the release uses statistics or makes sweeping statements, provide the references. The news release should be well written and in a style where a hard pressed and time poor journalist can lift your copy. However, without being able to verify the evidence of what is being said, he or she cannot do their job properly.
The third is that like the media, we need to monitor what is happening on social media and if any fake news is spotted that could impact on a client, we move fast to correct it.
At Indigo, we are in the fortunate position of having good professional working relationships with many journalists who know that we are a reliable and reputable company. I pitched something to a senior journalist recently and he said that he knew we were trustworthy and deliver what we promise. I took it as a huge compliment for the work that we do and the way that our team operates.
The debate about fake news continues to rage around the world and will do for a long time to come. Against such a backdrop, the need for integrity becomes increasingly important. For PR people, it is time to remember that ethical, evidence-based PR is more important than ever and to do anything less would be a disservice to both our colleagues in the media and clients.
Felicity MacFarlane, Account Director