Members of the press and PR industry met in London this week to discuss the future of the media and the impact of “fake news” on the industry. I was a keynote speaker, so these are my tips for brands in the current environment.
First things first, “fake news” is not new. It’s a new term for an old problem. We used to call misinformation “propaganda” if it was government-led and a “hoax” if staged by a member of the public. The Internet has just increased the accessibility of individuals to create spurious stories, seed them, and for people to believe them to be fact.
At the same time, the role of the journalist has become less the “breaker” of stories and more the verifier and contextualiser of events. Take a look at live events, such as terrorism, the first you’ll hear of it is on social media accompanied by footage from a phone. The media, who track trending events, will get wind of this pretty quickly and get reporters on the scene. However, but in the blurred interim before the media cavalry arrives there is a great deal of confusion and potential for misinformation.
According to former Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell, the first speaker at the PRCA’s Future of the Media event, fake news has done traditional news a favour as people turn to established media outlets for context and factual reporting.
Additionally, the press is pushed for time and resource, which is why in some quarters a culture of “churnalism” – essentially, copy and paste of press releases and a lack of fact checking just to get a volume of stories online – has emerged.
So how can PR professionals deal with “fake news” as and when it affects their clients? For a start, they need a greater understanding of how journalists and influencers work, so they can build solid, long-term relationships, and be regarded as trusted sources and not time-wasters. PR agencies' strengths are their relationships and their ideas, after all.
I believe PRs need to draw on their skills in crisis communications, messaging and social media in an era of fake news. And they need to prepare now. The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining, to quote John F. Kennedy.
Step One: Prepare
Get set up: conduct a reputation audit so you can assess public perception, your supporters and your opponents, if you have any. Set up a listening framework, social media and response protocols to identify and respond to issues as and when they arise. Create a threats analysis – where could fake news potentially emerge? Finally, train stakeholders.
Step Two: Act Quickly
The first things you need to do if fake news strikes are establishing the source and the facts. Acknowledge that you are listening but be careful not to give the issue credibility, and alert all stakeholders. In a social media crisis you should aim to take the issue offline, if possible, but with fake news you have to be careful that your actions will not give the topic oxygen.
Step Three: Take Control
If the fake news event scales to the point where you need to respond publically, do so with a blog post, video or press release outlining your position. Provide regular updates online and engage with your media and influencer contacts that have covered the story.
Step Four: Learn and Iterate
The news agenda will inevitably move on, so when things die down, create an analysis report and run an honest assessment – what worked, what didn’t, what would you do differently?
Hone your protocol if required and continue to train your staff.
Fake news is not a new challenge, but it is something that is growing as a trend and has the potential to impact organisations if they’re unprepared. Repair that roof now while you still can.