The drumbeat over the growing spate of “fake news” stories reached a crescendo last week when the 2017 AP Stylebook felt compelled to address proper journalistic style when referring to “the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet.” Ironically, “fake news” is far from new. The Onion and National Inquirer were peddling this cheap brand of journalism long before Al Gore ever invented the internet.
What is new is the impact “fake news” is having on the Fourth Estate; where trust in traditional news media is at an all-time low. A September 2016 Gallup Poll revealed that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with [only] 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”
The declining trust in mainstream media could be both a cause and a consequence of fake news gaining traction, according to a research paper by Stanford University, Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. It cites recent evidence that shows 62 percent of adults get their news on social media, the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories, and many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them.
What does all this mean for PR professionals?
It means we need to reassess the mix of media relations strategies for our companies and clients. The value of earned media placements – long considered the Willy Wonka golden ticket of media relations – have diminished by this collapse in trust of our most trusted resource. Alternatively, there is a growing demand for social media where people hold greater trust in their peers, their friends and their colleagues.
It also means that transparency in our communications has never been more important. Jane Dvorak, APR, 2017 chair of the Public Relations Society of America said it best.
“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. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy.
PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”
Amen, Jane. Amen.
Carolyn Reis, APR, is a veteran public relations consultant nationally trained in crisis communications. Her firm, Orlando-based Reis Corporate Public Relations, focuses on serving the strategic marketing communications needs of business-to-business clients in Florida and national companies with a Florida presence.