FRIDAY 3 NOV 2017 2:48 PM


In a recent survey undertaken by global media PR software and analytics company, Cision, the question of fake news was put to over 400 UK journalists. The results showed that 40% of journalists expressed a high level of concern about the phenomenon. Yet what does fake news mean for professional communicators? Philip Smith, head of content marketing and communications at Cision, speaks on its cross-sector impact.

How does fake news impact professionals working in journalism, PR and communications?

Philip Smith: Let me start with journalism, and how that’s then impacting communicators. The study was very much of journalists. To give you a bit of context, we’ve been doing the study worldwide and in the UK for six years. This is the first time we’ve asked journalists about fake news. We’ve always asked them about social media, especially their habits with regards to social media. Fake news is now on the agenda, and we wanted to see what journalists thought about it.

We weren’t surprised by the fact that fake news was on their agenda, but we were surprised by the scale of difference between how journalists in news, politics and current affairs had a major concern about fake news (40%), whereas other sectors of journalism such as lifestyle, fashion, sports and culture showed less concern (24%). It’s at different levels, in different sectors, particularly amongst journalists.  

I think that’s a big concern for communicators, particularly if they’re in the news, politics or current affairs arena – clearly journalists have a reputation for being sceptical about information they receive, and quite rightly – but also, if they’re concerned about fake news, they’re going to need even more credibility to ensure that the information they’re receiving is factually correct, accurate and as transparent as possible.

I think that there’s the possibility of more distrust there, and for communicators, it means an added responsibility to make sure they’re communicating the facts. In the broader sense of communicators, they clearly have an agenda now where they must be even more aware of what’s being said about the brands they’re working with or for. They’ve got to make sure they’re on top of the possibility that a fake news story could break, and how they’re going to counter it.

In terms of crisis communications, we’d always say have contingency plans, and fake news only emphasises that. I think people will need to start having a contingency plan in place, in case there is something that is inaccurate about their brand.

If you look at certain specific sectors, like pharmaceutical and the agrochemical industries, we certainly perceive that fake news is more of an issue for companies in those areas because there are claims that are made about their products. What that means, on the communications agenda, is that particularly in the fake news dimension, educating the market on the impact of fake news is important.

How are brands and the media fighting back against fake news?

If you look at the example of viral marketing, which has been around for years, it’s always endured. I think, in some ways, fake news has always been with us. There’s always been urban myths, and I think there always will be. Clearly now, it’s a hot subject for various things that have been in the headlines. But I think the fact that consumers are warier about this – and as we’ve said, journalists are concerned as well – might be a good thing, particularly for those brands that are clear and transparent about what they’re saying.

I think what ‘fighting back’ means is that people are going to be more and more careful about dealing with trusted sources and outlets for their own communications. We’ve found, in studies looking at consumers, certain media types are trusted more than others, broadcast ahead of online media and social media, etc. I think we might see things become more polarised, as brands will want their message, particularly in the earned media space, to go out through trusted sources.

What role does PR, communications and organisations like Cision have in navigating the post-truth era?

I think for me, and bearing in mind I’m in charge of the content that goes out through Cision’s owned media channels – cleared therefore, to a certain degree, with regards to the primacy of fact-checking – we’re always very conscious that we’ve got to make the angle to something very transparent and obvious.

The other thing, in terms of Cision, is that being aware of what is being said about your brand, and we obviously have our monitoring services, is increasingly important. Ensuring that there are guidelines in terms of what is fake news and what isn’t for a brief is also important to tackle undesirable claims about your brand.

Are we getting the right metrics with regards to fake news, and is it affecting the way we measure communications?

I think it can be likened to the measurement of positive and negative sentiment about a brand. You can have a campaign that gets a lot of attention and coverage, but clearly if that coverage is negative, there’s an issue. It’s important to ask if you are analysing your campaigns to gauge the right information about the sentiment of the campaign. It might be great that people are talking about you, but if they’re talking about something that’s transparently false about your brand, and something that’s propagated elsewhere, I think that’s a problem.

Conversely, at a panel discussion on the fake news topic at this year’s Advertising Week Europe, a point that resonated well, with great relevance for communicators, was people are now not necessarily seeing your website as a destination. Increasingly, because of the way people dip in and out of social, they’re not necessarily going to be able to go back to your website and check the facts. With regards to measurement, you can no longer rely on people coming back to the source of your owned media, but instead, the role of communicators is to now be part of the discourse.