Discussing the ‘fake news’ problem – and how PR can help

Last week, one of our PR account directors Anna Hartt joined South Wales Evening Post Editor Jonathan Roberts, and BBC Wales reporter Ben Price, on a panel at Swansea University. They were gathered to discuss social media, fake news, and authenticity in the media with more than 300 students, at an event organised in conjunction with the National Assembly for Wales and the WJEC.

Here on the blog, Anna shares some of the key points covered by the panel, whose purpose was to educate students on essential study skills such as critical thinking and the evaluation of evidence.

Defining fake news and understanding the scale of the problem

The day opened with a discussion on the scale of the fake news problem – no surprise when considering that digital misinformation has become so pervasive that the World Economic Forum has now listed it as one of the main threats to society. Of course, no conversation on this topic would have been complete without a nod to the man who (claims to have) coined the phrase – Trump – and students were shown the recent example of the Macedonian ‘teenpreneurs’ who manufactured false pro-Trump content from their bedrooms. This led to a discussion on the US President’s ongoing claims that those who criticise him are themselves purveyors of fake news. The panel were in agreement that fabricated, exaggerated or manipulated content, or that which treads the fine line between satire and misinformation, can also fall into the ‘fake news’ category.

Clickbait, accuracy and intrigue

The students were particularly interested to hear the journalists’ perspectives on how the news-gathering process works, and how the journalists constructing news stories can strike the balance between accuracy and intrigue. Jonathan emphasised that it all comes down to relevance to readers, but within the confines of editorial guidelines which are there to prevent sensationalist reporting. Ben, too, said that the BBC has strict processes to govern how its journalists verify information. This led to a conversation on the use of misleading headlines, with pupils encouraged to understand the term ‘clickbait’ and to question the motivations behind certain headlines.

Post-truth ethics

The issue of media ethics was consistently raised, and the panel agreed that transparency and integrity are central to good journalism and PR. From a PR perspective, I explained the fundamental difference between the ‘healthy injection of life’ into a story, and the deliberate skewing of facts or ‘spinning’ of material. As a PR practitioner, it was great to have the opportunity to explain to the students that ‘Good PR’ is inextricably linked to relationships and reputation – not just with the media but also with clients – and both of these would be destroyed in an instant with morally elastic decision-making. When questioned on the processes that are in place to avoid errors of judgement, I pointed to the strict layers of sign-off within campaign teams that guard against things slipping through the net, and also our membership to accreditation bodies like the CIPR.

Think before sharing

Everyone on the panel agreed that social media platforms can be a fertile breeding ground for the sharing of unsubstantiated content. Recent examples such as the spurious video footage of twin tornadoes apparently hitting Florida (footage that it transpired originated from 2007), and an image purporting to show Richard Branson’s post-Hurricane Irma ‘looting injury’ (which was actually from his 2016 motorbike crash) demonstrated how misinformation can fuel panic.

What does post-truth mean for PR?

This was an interesting question posed by the chair. There is more scope than ever before for brands themselves to be the subject of fake news stories – so for them, having robust content strategies in place is important, and that’s where PR can help. Similarly, the old adage that trust can take a lifetime to build, but a minute to break, has never held more weight, so working to build transparent and credible relationships with audiences remains key. The other key point I wanted to make is that PR still has a major role to play in providing sound, evidence-based content. When ‘questionable news’ stories abound, credible content placed on trusted platforms, will be more important than ever. I pointed to the amount of fact checking and the levels of sign off that take place before anything PR-led reaches the media, adding that we don’t solely have our clients’ reputations to manage, but as agencies and practitioners, also our own.

Discerning fact in a post-truth society

In short, there is no panacea to the problem. Action is needed to improve media literacy and pluralism, and the key take-out for the students was to think critically about everything they consume. They were encouraged to understand that what they see on their Facebook timelines isn’t an objective reflection of the full range of opinions on a topic, but because of sophisticated algorithms, an aggregation of what Facebook knows are their interests and likes. We encouraged them to cross-refer stories, use fact-checking websites, consider the source of information and, ultimately, to think hard for themselves.

Anna Hartt, PR Account Director