TUESDAY 2 MAY 2017 11:27 AM


Public relations professionals are the original masters of spin. How has the role of media relations and PR changed since the rise of fake news? Amy Sandys reports

In January 2017, before Donald Trump was sworn in as US president and the UK’s referendum on European Union membership led to the triggering of Article 50, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) published a list of 17 recommendations for communicators in 2017. Increased acknowledgment of the importance of employer brand, companies needing to embrace coherent CSR strategies and shifts in the relationship between communicators and the digital landscape necessitated the inclusion of important but faintly predictable suggestions in the PRCA’s list.

Yet one entry perhaps came as a surprise for its intended audience, comprised of in-house and agency- side communications professionals. “While 2016 saw much discussion of political fake news,” says the PRCA, “in future, businesses will also be the subject of aggressive campaigns based on misinformation. The need for intensive social media monitoring, rapid rebuttal, flexibility and empowerment of frontline communicators has never been greater.” The potential impact of fake news on corporate reputation and brand value, if incorrectly handled, could be potentially damaging for the affected industry.

As such, the need for PRs to clarify their commitment to adapting to, and mitigating the effects of, what is widely regarded as the ‘post-truth’ era became clear. Social media and digital platforms are facilitating the spread of fake news, often at a rate quicker than legitimate news sites, to all corners of the globe. And while political fervour was its first victim, as the PRCA rightly points out, businesses are just as vulnerable. The role of PR and media relations professionals is changing, transcending its initial purpose, to go beyond developing and maintaining corporate reputation to the benefit of its stakeholders.

Now, the relationship between PRs, media relations professionals and journalists relies heavily on the ability of public relation practitioners to prevent the publication of misleading information. This is while providing a press platform to hold decision making to account.

Adam Batstone, director at global communications agency MHP Communications and former senior editor at the BBC news website, says, as a result, PR reputation is more important than ever before. “Broadly speaking, retaining your reputation as
a trustworthy, reliable source who does not make exaggerated claims on behalf of clients will probably serve you well in a context where the authenticity of news is under greater scrutiny,” Batstone says. He also recommends moving away from an overreliance on one particular source and minimising PR reliance on potentially misleading social media. “Having well established relationships with a wide range
of journalists will clearly help you to cement your reputation for integrity,” he says.

Many involved in the communications and media relations profession argue, however, that the dissemination of fake news is confined not just to the modern era. The term ‘spin’ is historically associated with influencing an outcome to change public opinion in the client’s favour; relationship building depends on effectively identifying and distributing current, accurate information with relevance. And, for journalists to maintain integrity, caution has always been exercised in the face of potentially exaggerated claims – spin is regarded as necessary for an industry which exists to promote its stakeholders.

But, says Batstone, where integrity is concerned, the relationship between journalism and PR has always been frosty. “PR has always had a slightly delicate mutually abusive relationship with journalism,” Batstone says. “It is in neither’s interest for fake news to take hold and further damage public perception, which is already low in relation to both journalism and PR.” Where fake news has the potential to impact a company or brand’s reputation, however, ensuring an effective and relevant crisis communications strategy is in place should be a priority for media and public relations professionals.

For French construction company Vinci, this situation emerged in November 2016 after news outlet Bloomberg published a hoax press release detailing how the company allegedly intended to sack its chief financial officer Christian Labeyrie, and restate its accounts due to losses amounting to around €3.5bn. Vinci was quick to react, with only 24 minutes between the Bloomberg article and its published response which reads, “A fake press release was published today by Bloomberg at 4.05 PM. Vinci denies formally all the information contained in this fake press release and is investigating all legal actions in furtherance thereof.” Although now recovered on the French stock market, the allegations made against Vinci were not without consequence and the company saw its shares fall by 18% in the hours proceeding Bloomberg’s publication.

“Fake news companies find it easier to thrive online than real news companies because they do not have the overheads that professional news-gathering entails"

Demonstrative of the immediate impact ‘fake news’ can have on not just political but economic outcomes, Vinci implemented a rapid response with immediacy. Using PR to in the aftermath of such serious allegations saved Vinci’s corporate reputation; its stock market standing recovered to end with a 4% decline that day. Yet Vinci is not the only global organisation to react to a cyber-based press release falsity. Physical activity tracker Fitbit and online cosmetics distributor Avon have also fallen victim to stock-based ‘fake news’ distribution, each time purporting the need for clear, reliable communications strategies.

With each fake news story, trust in the media decreased – PRs rely on the ethics of their trade more than ever. Speaking to PR Week, Shannon Bowen, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, says, “To be ethical communicators and leaders, the power of public relations should be used to empower others – to facilitate wise decisions through providing information, by making a range of options possible and actionable, and by serving the interests of society – as well as those of clients.” Perhaps, then, scaling media relationships down to a more localised scale serves to personalise information for clients while contributing to an acceptance of the merits of certified news outlets.

Given the UK and global media industry suffering from continually low trust scores, as highlighted in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, perhaps the best route for public relations professionals is to approach news sources with a view to informing their immediate audience. “People now view media as part of the elite,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, following the publishing of its 2017 index. Edelman suggests, in a return to a period of more traditional media relations, that face-to-face interaction is the key to establishing trust. “The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers. The lack of trust in media has given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses. Media outlets must take a more local and social approach,” Edelman says.

A 2016 report by Deloitte for the News Media Association highlighted the extent to which regional news is consumed by the UK public, showing that, for the moment, the proliferation of fake news is confined to the digital realm. Around 40 million people read local newspapers in print and online, making them the second most popular medium through which local news is consumed.

Yet, says the News Media Association, a lack of professionalism by journalists or PRs is not to blame for businesses being the target of unsolicited claims. “Fake news sites are not staffed by journalists but by individuals who see a commercial, political or other opportunity in gaming the algorithms Facebook, Google and other networks and platforms use to connect their users with news stories,” says the association’s report. “Fake news companies find it easier to thrive online than real news companies because they do not have the overheads that professional news-gathering entails. These overheads are very difficult to cover in a digital news environment which rewards the distribution of content by internet platforms far more generously than it does those who create it.”

In some instances, however, the seemingly impossible task faced by public relations professionals is made easier by the social platforms themselves. For Penny Wilson, chief marketing officer at social media management platform, Hootsuite, the proliferation of fake news provides the opportunity for digital platforms to prove their prowess in challenging such behaviour. “Because we’re in the social media industry, there are tools that we provide our customers to help them combat misinformation,” says Wilson. “It’s recommending a listening and engagement strategy to monitor fake news, and keeping them aware of what the networks themselves are doing to help them.” With 15m users, the company is well aware that its credibility depends on its ability to help brands deal with the untruths pervading social media, as well as give brands the tools to protect its reputation.

Yet, Wilson says Hootsuite’s strategy is somewhat hands off. While it takes fake news seriously, the company’s solution to protecting its users from the lures of clickbait headlines hinges on providing effective customer guides and ensuring high awareness of the issue. “We do a lot in education and training, and making customers aware that whatever platform they choose, fake news could impact them,” says Wilson. Hootsuite’s longevity in the social dashboard arena and impressive revenue record instils that most integral of human emotions in its users – trust. “People look at us to be that social leader in the industry and really understand what’s current for them – keep them up-to-date with changes,” says Wilson.

“PR has always had a slightly delicate mutually abusive relationship with journalism. It is in neither’s interest for fake news to take hold and further damage public perception, which is already low in relation to both
journalism and PR”

Batstone agrees, social media, he says, may have facilitated the transition of media outlets from reliable sources of information, but some digital platforms were among the first to actively address consumer qualms. It is therefore harder for fake news sites to distribute information and easier for PRs to assess the quality of their sources. “Twitter’s blue tick method of authenticating accounts is a good example of a model that can reassure your audiences. Fake news has also made everyone – not just journalists – think about the role of big tech companies like Facebook and Google as content creators rather than simply as platforms,” says Batstone.

Another positive for communicators facing the threat, and impact, of a post-truth era digital society is the PR role’s extension away from a siloed department and into the wider organisation. Previously, Wilson argues, communications was confined only to the communicators. Although the global proliferation of digital communications has no doubt produced many challenges, one clear positive is the ability of many – if not all – employees to influence communications strategies. Wilson says, “What we’re seeing is that social is moving just beyond the social team that a company would typically have. There are other people across the organisation, whether it be a sales organisation or a customer support organisation that integrate social.” This dissemination of pressure eases the burden facing public relations professionals and marketers dealing with a confusing melange of news sources, but the new tools integrated into digital platforms mean the potential for an employee- generated crisis is also minimised. “We can expand the use of the platform and it still gives the organisation the opportunity to manage it and control it from one central source,” says Wilson. “It’s moving across the interface, so it’s not just for the marketing team.”

Social handling might well be moving away from the siloed approach of previous year. But despite its inclusion in every communications strategist’s handbook, deflecting the negative impacts of ‘fake news’ relies also on the employment of strong journalistic skill – something less easily managed on a workplace-wide scale. Factual information is headline- and attention-grabbing, if those involved in its creation are invested enough to ensure its quality is as compelling as its potentially fake counterpart. How journalists work with PRs, says Batstone, therefore contributes to the ability of public relations practitioners to retain respect and integrity in their chosen field. “Both sides need to stick to the facts in the face of fake news and restate the fundamental principles of telling stories which are interesting, useful, entertaining and true,” he says. And engaging narrative need not revert to untruths.

In a world of decreased journalistic budgets, quick-fix news sites and a lack of sub- editing, storytelling with integrity can seem in short supply. But, says Batstone, the picture for PRs is less bleak – particularly in the UK – due to ever- increasing caution exercised by consumers. “In reality, [fake news] has little bearing on most clients’ day- to-day use of digital content or channels,” Batstone says, “other than to serve as a reminder that in an unregulated world of online news, it is important to maintain your reputation as a reliable source.” Integrity and the pursuit of authenticity therefore go a long way in a profession perceived by many as characterised by subterfuge. For those working in PR and media relations departments, accepting a ‘post-truth’ existence means accepting a fundamental reshaping of the way audiences consume information.