PR pros vs. the spread of disinformation

20 Feb 2017 12:00 am by Leela Bozonelis

"Fake news" - those are the words on the lips of everyone from the president of the United States and around the world. True to the deceptive nature of the stories themselves, there is confusion about what exactly people mean when they talk about fake news, but it's indisputable that incorrect information is becoming common online.

PR professionals are likely to come across disinformation in their everyday duties, and this should be a major concern. Fake news stories painting negative pictures of companies can have very real consequences, and PR officials also have to make sure they don't spread falsehoods that are positive in tone, as that can make the organisation seem dishonest.

Identifying, debunking and avoiding fake, misleading stories is becoming an integral part of the PR tool kit. To become proficient in these techniques, PR experts have to learn to detect and neutralise these problematic and incorrect sources wherever they encounter them, always being aware of the damage they can cause.

PR faces down fake news

It is becoming increasingly clear to PR pros themselves that they will be the ones to handle the fake news crisis - and that it's not a passing fad. The PR Council's PR News Online polled its readers and found 77 percent of PR firms are worried about dealing with the spread of disinformation. Not all of those agencies' customers are as concerned - the same survey found only 62 percent of respondents have observed fake news anxiety among their clients.

PR pros could be more worried than different types of business leaders with good reason: the long-term effects of fake news may be felt first and most acutely by the media and, by extension, the PR field. PR News Online explained that when false stories are allowed to spread and enter the discussion, they make people trust established news sources less. The value of earned media is one of the core pillars of PR, and agencies have to protect the integrity and image of news to keep their own placements as useful as possible. Fighting back against fake news will be a key part of this effort.


An expanding trend

The politically-charged fake stories that gained national attention during the U.S. election campaign are not the only form of fake or shoddy news out there. PR Daily contributor Sally Falkow noted that they are part of a larger wave of "bad news" stories sent to press that are either severely lacking in facts or actively deceptive.

Falkow pointed to a definition from Snopes founder (and therefore debunking expert) David Mikkelson, who explained that badly assembled news stories are everywhere today, causing problems for everyone. Battling back against this expanding morass of poorly sourced content means being a responsible consumer and sharer of news, first and foremost. PR departments will have to appoint themselves curators of facts in years to come.

The urge to share

Fake news preys on the internet's connected nature. Now that's it's easier than ever before to share information with a huge number of people, fake facts can become common knowledge in a hurry. To glimpse the magnitude of the problem, simply look at Pew data from late 2016 that found 16 percent of Americans say they accidentally shared a news story they later discovered was fake - and 14 percent spread fake news on purpose.

You need to keep an eagle eye on the content being passed around concerning your brand and industry. Stopping fake stories before they spread too far may not only help your client or company defend its good name, it may serve as part of a greater pushback against disingenuous and wrong information, protecting the perceived value of news media as a whole.