Why Fake News Matters to PR Professionals

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Unless you’ve gone on a digital cleanse in the past year, you’ve probably had an interaction with fake news lately. Perhaps you’ve heard President Trump accuse both CNN and The New York Times of being “fake news,” or maybe you are a part of the reason Google searches for “fake news” have dramatically spiked in the past year. Either way, you’ve most likely come across a fake headline or two recently.

Fake news is typically written based off of little to no facts and is often recognized by outsiders as a conspiracy theory, or propaganda from either side of the political aisle. Social media is the perfect vehicle to spread fake news, and since 44 percent of the nation gets their news from social media, it is easy to see why so many people are falling for these phony headlines. So why should you, as a PR professional, care about seeing fake news on your social media feed?

Your client/company could be victim.

The consequences of your client becoming the subject of a fake news story can be very real. For example, Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C., was a victim of a fake news story that accused the restaurant of being the center of a child sex trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. Not only was business impacted by the fictitious story, a man from North Carolina entered Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle looking to rectify the fabricated scenario himself. Luckily, no one was harmed.

Large brands are not immune to the fake news trend either. Pepsi found itself at the center of a fake news controversy after Trump supporters called for a boycott in reaction to a quote their CEO never made.

New Balance also found itself at the center of a scandal when a quote from its vice president of public affairs was twisted into a story that claimed the shoes were the official brand of white supremacists. The result? Videos were posted of angry customers burning their New Balance shoes. Not a good look.

Social media spreads fake news fast.

Whether it is fake or not, social media allows news to spread farther and faster than on any other platform. Many fake news headlines are created with total disregard for the truth, with the intention of maximizing clicks to drive ad revenue. People then share the false news, even if they haven’t read past that attention-grabbing headline.

Facebook has deemed the sharing of fake news across their platform such a problem, that they have been testing a fake news filter in France. The filter works in conjunction with eight other media companies to fact-check and block stories that have been reported by users. Google is also working on a similar fact-checking filter to weed out fake news stories.

Distrust in the media weakens the foundation of communication.

PR is built upon the idea that people trust news sources. If the public can’t trust the media, an earned feature will no longer carry the same weight.

Jane Dvorak, the chair of the Public Relation’s Society of America, made a public announcement regarding the subject. In the statement, Dvorak speaks to the importance of honesty in PR and said, “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.” Dvorak reinforces the importance of providing transparent, well-researched facts to the public.

So, what can you do as a PR Professional to help? First, make sure you’re not being fooled by fake news, or worse, circulating fake news yourself. Check the source, actually read the article and do a simple Google search to see if any other major outlet has covered the story. Additionally, make sure the messages you are putting out to the media on behalf of your client are completely transparent to avoid any misinformation.

Perhaps, as Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post argues, it would be best if we stopped using the term “fake news.” Sullivan has suggested that the phrase is “tainted” by misuse and that it should be retired altogether, “Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.”

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