PR must draw on wide skillset to meet challenge of ‘fake news’

I recently presented on the PR challenge of ‘fake news’ in London. I believe PROs can meet this threat head-on because they already use the skills required on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s get this out of the way early; there’s nothing new about ‘fake news.’ Before the Internet made the ability to publish misinformation accessible to all, we called it ‘propaganda’ if it was government led and a ‘hoax’ if it was a member of the public, often accompanied by blurry photos claiming to be Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster.

‘Fake news’ is a new name for an old problem, but nevertheless, an issue that’s escalating. A recent example is the vast amount of misinformation that surrounded the US election. Nonsense stories such as the Pope backing Trump emanating from clickbait hunters in Macedonia illustrate that this is a global problem.

I spoke recently at the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) ‘Future of the Media’ event in London on how PROs can deal with the fake news. To fully understand the phenomenon, we need to understand the role of the journalist in 2017.

Far from the breaker of stories that journalists once were, they are now more likely to be called upon to verify and contextualize emerging stories. Modern news outlets track trends on social media and dispatch reporters to a scene. This becomes critical in events such as the Manchester suicide bombing or the London Bridge van attack, where the only source of information in the time between the start of the incident and when a reporter can get to the scene is the public. In that period we rely on social media feeds and very often fall victim to reading, and believing, fake images or misinformation (malicious or just inaccurate) that are shared using the same hashtags.

Even for the trade press, verifying stories and vendor claims is a key part of their job, especially when under pressure to submit copy. This often leads to “churnalism”, the old copy-and-paste job.

What does this mean for PR?

PR’s role is twofold: to inform, educate and persuade on one hand and defend reputations on the other.

When it comes to informing, educating and persuading, we need to work better with reporters and influencers. We must not spam them but counsel clients wisely on when a story will be of value to a reporter or influencer’s audience.

As PROs, we sell not only our ideas but also our relationships. Therefore, building a strong relationship with journalists and influencers ensures that when they hear from us they know we can be trusted to give them a genuine story and not waste their time. While this should already be the default position for PROs, as a former journalist and current blogger believe me, many agencies fail to do just that.

When it comes to defending reputation, we need to make sure we have a structure in place:


Audit your organisation. Who are your fans and your opponents? Set up a listening framework on social media to be alert to mentions about you as they happen in order to verify their authenticity. Establish response protocols internally and train all the stakeholders.

Act Quickly

If fake news strikes, you can activate the same protocols you would during a social media crisis. Decide if you need to acknowledge you are listening, unless a response would give that fake news oxygen. Establish the facts and assess the source(s) of the story. Are they credible?

Take Control

If the fake news event escalates to the point that you need to respond in full, consider a blog post, video or press release outlining your position. Provide regular updates and engage with press and influencers that have engaged with the story.

Learn and Iterate

The news agenda will move on quickly. When it does, run an honest analysis of what happened. What worked and what didn’t? What would you do differently? Hone your protocol and keep that staff training up!

Unfortunately, fake news is here to stay. However, with our combined skills at media relations, crisis communications and social media, PROs are well placed to deal with it. Either way, it’s going to be tougher to pull off those April 1st PR spoof stories…

Have you been affected by fake news or need help telling your story? Get in touch with us to see how we can help.


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