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A draft public relations framework to tackle fake news

Public relations is on the front line in helping organisations tackle fake news. Here’s how.

Fake news isn’t new. It’s as old as media itself. What is new is the speed that it is shared around the internet.

You can trace the history of fake news in the public relations business from Edward Bernays in the 1900s to Max Clifford in the 1980s. More recently from the Iraq War dodgy dossier in the early noughties, to campaigning during last year’s UK Referendum and US Election.

The term has become a catch all phrase to cover a range of content from stories that are completely made up, to blatant propaganda.

Public relations has an important role to play in helping organisations counter fake news.

Here’s a draft framework for practitioners. It’s a work in progress. Please let me know how it could be improved.

Crisis communications planning

Review your crisis communications plan to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Your risk register should already include misinformation spread via social media but ensure that it is updated to include fake news. Review responsibilities, content and workflow. Scenario plan for a fake news attack.

Upgrade monitoring solutions

Implement robust monitoring of online media and the social web for your company name, brands and key spokespeople. Set thresholds for when a fake news attack is likely to impact your publics. Have workflow in place to escalate responses.

Storytelling at speed

The news cycle no longer exists. Stories are spread at the click of a button amplified by our social networks. Align relevant operational areas of your organisation so that you can counter fake news quickly.

Live your values

A value is only a value if you are prepared to defend it. Organisations under scrutiny from campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate must be prepared to respond, and where necessary take a stand and share their point of view.

Rapid rebuttal to counter attacks

Move quickly counter to positively rebut fake news. Do not republish attacks. Instead share positive content that counters fake news via owned, shared media channels and third party influencers including traditional media.

Paying to play

Paid media provides the means to directly counter fake news in networks. Investment in paid search and promotion on social media sites can go a long way to countering an attack. Have the skills and budget in place for paid planning and targeting.

Employees as advocates

Everyone in an organisation has a role in helping counter a fake news attack. Employees are frequently an organisation’s most powerful reputational asset. Share content far and wide and encourage employees to use their own networks.

Satire has a place; don’t over react

Recognise the difference between fake news and satire. Media outlets such as The Onion and Private Eye that take a contrarian view have an important part of a functioning democracy. Any response to satire should be appropriate.

Technology

There are numerous ongoing efforts to encourage online publishers to tackle distribution of fake news. Lobby platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter to implement verification schemes for media, and mechanisms for users to report and flag fake news.

Ethics

Hire practitioners and communication teams that adhere to an ethical code of conduct set out by an appropriate industry association. Public relations agencies should work to an ethical framework. In the UK both the CIPR and PRCA have robust ethical frameworks and escalation procedures in the event of a breach.

At Ketchum we’re working to help organisations around the world manage their reputation in this era of internet-driven fake news. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss its potential impact on your organisation.

Image by Matthew Ingram via Flickr.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Stephen,
    Another cracking discussion to be had here.

    My thoughts:
    One of problems is spotting fake news early in its life so it can be rebutted before it grows legs. So among monitoring solutions could be to encourage employees and other trusted networks to report potentially fake news activity to you.
    This might mean devising a simple plan – including an agreed reporting approach and fake news management team – which you share with your networks, refreshing regularly. Reciprocal arrangements would build trust between your organisation and your networks.

  2. Stephen…This piece is, to me, the height of denial and more proof that PR is headed for its own 911 moment. For you, a PR executive, to counsel fake news prevention is simply beyond the pale. However you cut it, no matter how diligently you may beautify the craft, PR is on the spectrum of manipulation and embellishment. It is, from Bernays out, a showcase of institutionalized misrepresentation. It is the founding function of your mock shock.

  3. Alan, I think you’re wrong here. Stephen points out the importance of hiring ethical PR practitioners, and as an aspiring young PR practitioner myself, I’ve been taught by and worked with quite a number of practitioners. The bad rep that PR has acquired is going away. While there may be some bad apples in the mix, overall, PR pros push the very opposite of manipulation and embellishment. In a company or organization, it’s always the PR pros that are pushing others in the organization towards transparency and the truth. PR in the United States, for example, really started coming about when Ivy Ledbetter Lee pushed railroads to be transparent about their accidents. Since his influence on PR began in the early 1900s, it has pushed the industry forward to one of truth, transparency and authenticity. With these three values, and with ethical PR practitioners, I do believe that PR can change the world for the better, and as Stephen writes, can eliminate fake news.

  4. Wadds
    A thoughtful and very necessary start to a critical issue that all of working in communications need to address.
    Is there one fundamental leg missing however?
    As you note, fake news is nothing new, examples of ‘Potemkin Villages’ are legion.
    Yet is our thinking based on an X-Files-like myth, that ‘the truth is out there’ and only if we could get unadorned, pure media and communications this truth will prevail. If only we could cut through the ‘spin’ and ‘fake news’.
    The reality, however, is everything is subjective, spin is inherent in all communications – and a key part of our quest is not to go into spin denial but lead the way for encouraging people to better, more discerning consumers of spin so they are primed and ready to spot when something is distorted, exaggerated or just plain fake.
    Do we need to be doing the equivalent of telling a kid, ‘Father Christmas doesn’t exist’. and then show leadership in developing the processes you propose and the education of citizens that they have a responsibility, and with our help, can survive and make better decisions in this so-called ‘post truth’ and ‘no truth’ world’?

  5. Good list. My first thought in respect of any new piece of communication is “does this matter?”

    In the world of ‘instant’ communication, many things said pass into the ether unnoticed until someone says something back – a modern day version of “if a tree falls in in the forest and there is no-one there…”

    I had a conversation yesterday with a leader in a membership organisation with many branches who was looking for some ideas to bring to a gathering of local PR officers. He made the point about the need to educate that group on how they don’t need to comment on or ‘defend’ every mention of the organisation; that doing so can give credibility to issues and ‘notions’ that might otherwise have none. The caveat however is that to do so confidently – to ignore being discussed or mentioned – one has to be very clear that the mention is not relevant to the objective of your organisation and the audiences or stakeholders whose understanding / attitude / behaviours you are legitimately seeking to influence in pursuit of that objective.

    There is a lesson in that for those facing down fake news, but that should be at the root of everything a good communicator brings to the table day in, day out. Communications should have a very clear view of the objective of the organisation that we serve, the audiences that are relevant to that objective, the message(s) required to serve that objective and the disposition of the audience to that message at any given point (precisely why monitoring as mentioned is critical). That gives context. If there is a rigour and discipline in maintaining clarity and currency around, “objective, audience and message” then the communicator is equipped to know what matters, and to whom, and what doesn’t.

    Apologies if that is 101, assumed, but still relevant I think.

  6. Something else, again obvious, but important. Not withstanding the range of new outlets and formats of publication, there are still places, and particularly people of substance, and note to whom a public will turn when they are trying to figure what is real and what is fake. Any organisation thinking ahead in this fake news tainted environment must first build and then tend to its relationships with such respected commentators and reference points. They are the voices of authority to whom others will look when the silly stuff is flying around… It’s the ‘influencer’ approach but in a very different context.

  7. The Background briefing document.
    One of the foundation stones of good PR is that document that describes the organisation from the ground up aka History, products, locations, departments, senior managers with biogs, financial history etc etc warts and all.
    It is a simple thing that briefs employees, customers, vendors and many more stakeholders (does you MP have one? Do your principle financial backers have one?).
    It is a boring document but it provides the basis for all communication. It is the document all can fall back on .

    It is very hard to scam an organisation that has such deep defense.

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