How PR professionals should handle the fake news phenomenon

You’ve probably heard about the surge of so-called “fake news” that took over the U.S. election, and that has completely dominated the current news cycle. Companies are also now finding themselves the target of fake news. And as a PR professional, you’re likely curious at best — and terrified at worst — about what to do if a fake news campaign threatens your company.

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PR consultant, Hofstra University professor, and Bloomberg contributor Dr. Kara Alaimo counsels companies on handling fake news. We spoke with her for insight into this phenomenon and what it might mean for you as a PR professional.

Q: The definition of fake news seems hard to pin down: satirical sites, internet memes, untrue reporting, and even legitimate media coverage have all been construed as fake recently. How would you define fake news?

A: As a public relations practitioner, I think fake news is when a reporter isn’t open to hearing the facts. It used to be the case that if someone wrote something that was inaccurate, I would feel fairly confident that I could pick up the phone and call the reporter or the blogger. And if I could show them that what they had written was false, they would want to clear the record, because journalists care about their credibility above all else.

Yes, it’s the case that journalists might sometimes make a mistake. That doesn’t constitute fake news. For me fake news is when a reporter or blogger makes things up or isn’t open to hearing facts.

Q: It has been said that we are moving into a post-factual society. Do you believe this to be accurate?

A: I think we are moving into this post-truth society for a number of reasons, but one phenomenon we saw during the election was that fake news was spread by social media through fake accounts. For instance, 39 per cent of Donald Trump’s followers were bots. If you tweeted something that was false, that tweet would be spread across the internet by these bots. That’s pretty terrifying.

Q: How concerned should PR and communications practitioners be about fake news?

A: I think this should be very high up on the list of their concerns right now, and I think that it is. I’m flying all over the country from California to Alabama speaking to PR and corporate executives on how to prepare for and respond to the threat of fake news.

I think companies are increasingly seeing that they’re vulnerable to many of the same forces that we saw during the 2016 presidential election. We saw fake news claiming that Chobani’s founder had vowed to choke the U.S. with Muslims. We saw fake news that Pepsi’s chief executive officer had told supporters to take their business elsewhere.

I think companies are increasingly realizing that they are vulnerable, and that they need to be prepared. You can’t afford to wait until this kind of story is out there to figure out what to do.

Q: What would you say are the two or three most important rules to keep in mind when dealing with fake news?

A: First, I think companies always need to be thinking about how they’re communicating their values. The time to try to convince people about what you stand for isn’t when you are under attack. You want to have a record to point to.

Companies also need to write their responses in advance. Helio Fred Garcia, head of the Logos Consulting Group, uses the term “golden hour of crisis response”. It’s something borrowed from emergency medicine. The concept is that if someone is having a heart attack, minutes count. The exact same thing is true for companies experiencing a crisis.

I would also say that I never thought I would one day counsel corporate executives to sue the media. I still wouldn’t advise suing the mainstream media, but companies are quickly realizing the only way to deal with people who don’t care about the truth, and won’t correct the record when they write things that are completely false, is to take them to court.

Q: Is it ever wise to simply ignore fake news stories?

A: It’s often the case that you have trolls on the internet who post fake news. These people aren’t your customers, are never going to be your customers, and are trying to get a reaction out of you. If they can’t get a quick reaction out of you they’re going to move onto someone else who will react.

So 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.

Q: What do you think the general mood is among organizations, and PR professionals, around the issue of fake news and the current political climate?

A: I think that organizations are really concerned about how the phenomenon we saw in the 2016 election is going to affect them. That includes fake news, but I think it goes beyond that.

I’m also hearing that companies are really worried about being attacked by Trump on Twitter. He has shown a willingness to call out many companies, including General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Vanity Fair, and Boeing.

They’re trying to figure out whether, and when, to weigh in on political issues. In our polarized climate, we’re seeing a lot of companies caught in the crosshairs of controversial political issues. So companies are trying to figure out whether and when it makes sense to weigh in on political issue, and how to avoid the reputational harm that can come with both being silent and taking a stand.

Q: Do you think that the fake news phenomenon is eroding people’s trust in the news media?

A: I just gave a talk on this subject at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan. People seem to have deep distrust of the media. I think that’s because the concept of fake news is being wrapped up in people’s perception of the news media. At the same time, I think that the mainstream media is the solution. Organizations like PolitiFact are the ones who should be fact-checking posts on Facebook or tweets by the President, and telling the world when things are false.

We have seen that Facebook and The Washington Post have started such an initiative, but I think it’s now the role of the media to weigh in when things are fake.

Q: What is the importance of media monitoring and analysis in this era of fake news?

A: It has become more important. Organizations need to figure out if they’re vulnerable to getting called out by the current administration. Companies need to broaden their search criteria to make sure they’re reading about issues more broadly, and have a sense of the conversations happening on social media, and not just mentions of their name.
Agility PR Solutions data analyst Chantelle Brule contributed to this blog post.


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Jim Donnelly

Jim Donnelly

Jim Donnelly graduated with a BA in History/English from Wilfrid Laurier University and a MJ from Carleton University. Jim heads Agility PR Solutions’ Media Insights Group which oversees the production of public and client media analysis reports and infographics. Jim was previously editor of the Ottawa Business Journal and related publications such as Ottawa Technology Magazine and Meeting in the Capital.


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