While we always knew the Internet waters could be a bit murky when diving for truths, the recent oil spill of fake news and “alternative facts” has the nation questioning what to believe. Given the nature of public relations, which you can read about in my last post, it might seem like a blessing; after all, PR revolves around persuading the public towards a specific point of view.
Except not quite. Politico reported the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) disavowal of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer when he defended President Donald Trump’s claims of the inauguration crowd size and labeled reports of the size being smaller than Obama’s or the Women’s March on Washinton as “alternative facts.” The PRSA sets a code of ethics for the PR profession and was not thrilled with what they heard. “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts,” says Jane Dvorak, the society’s chair, wrote in a statement. “We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”
Even before this event, PR experts and companies have been pouncing onto the topic, discussing how to confront fake news and what it means for the PR industry. Robert Wynne, public relations professional, wrote about the issue in Forbes: “In a world with different sets of beliefs and facts for different audiences, the micro-targeting means different messaging for almost everything,” he states, dubbing it “the end of mass persuasion.” He attributes this to social media’s ability of bombarding the consumer with what they want to hear, whether it’s accurate or not. Though there has always been false information floating around, social media intensifies the concentration of fake news and tailors it to the individual. Add this to the current fracturing of trust in traditional media, and you have the nation disagreeing on what once were fundamental facts.
Dorothy Crenshaw, founder of the PR Consulting agency Crenshaw Communications, questioned how to separate PR from propaganda and wrote a list of what an honest PR person can do to fight fake news. She urged professionals not to “cut corners” when checking for inaccuracies, and to “hold clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking.” Despite it being difficult to fight web-based rumors that threaten a brand’s reputation without calling attention to them, she calls for public relations personnel to fight swiftly in debunking “lies.” And when it comes to promotions like a study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance—though she says there’s nothing wrong with them—she admits “we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding, and consumers of such news should take note of who pays, and who benefits.”
With fake news and alternative facts obscuring the water, trust in media is at an all-time low. It will take precise targeting of messages and careful vigilance of news and trends to combat the current atmosphere of continual doubt. Public relations companies and personnel must adapt, learning how to work within a disbelieving society while simultaneously fighting against the falsehoods permeating it.