PR must declare war on fake news — and kill it.

Fake News 202221992“Fake news” earned lots of publicity in 2016, but it’s hardly a new idea. Note here the 1992 TV Guide cover story that casts public relations as the villain — liars for hire and masters of spin. Like it or not, plenty of PR types have made a career producing fake news, and it’s bad for business.

PR historians point to legendary promoter and fake newser P. T. Barnum, who drew people to his circus in the late 1800s by claiming that George Washington’s nursemaid was part of his sideshow. At 161 years of age, this former slave helped wean our first president from his mother’s milk. Yep. Barnum loved a lie artfully told, and more than 150 years later shills of the entertainment industry still use fake news to pull bodies through the turnstiles.

Outside of entertainment circles, fake news has become serious and scary business. In 2016, the lies and distortions of fake news appeared in our news feeds daily and likely influenced voters in the U.S presidential election. Regardless of your politics, that’s a scary prospect.

As professional communicators, it’s natural for PR folks to be concerned about this outbreak of fake news. But it’s also clear that people bearing the title of public relations have contributed to the problem.

Before you go off on me for that statement, I know that TRUE PR professionals adhere to a code of ethics. We don’t make things up. In fact, if we’re doing our jobs well, we serve as journalists in residence, gathering facts and verifying them before release. We are, among other things, the gatekeepers of the corporate story.

But do PR people present the objective truth that professional journalists strive for? Do we routinely put forth ALL relevant facts – good, bad or indifferent? We do not. PR professionals tend to present stories that favor their clients and employers. We profess our ethics, but we’re also advocates for the organizations that pay us, thus our jobs come with a built-in conflict of interest. Are we loyal to truth or to the client? Sometimes you can do both, but it depends on the client and the communicator.

We tell our audiences that a steak is delicious and full of protein. We don’t tell them it’s laden with fat and cholesterol that can cause heart disease. We’re selective in what we present. The assumption is that, in a free society, our audiences know the facts and will make their own choicesScreen Shot 2017-01-19 at 3.45.47 PM. But that’s not always the case. Audiences don’t always know the truth, and they aren’t always smart enough to recognize a ruse when they see it. Consider that President Trump, during his campaign, called global warming a creation of the Chinese, and his followers at rally after rally cheered the lie.

If you’ve read this far, you have an abiding interest in professional PR practice. Not everyone in this business shares your concern. A lot of them focus strictly on changing attitudes and behaviors to benefit their clients and employers. You know — moving the needle. They don’t invest time reflecting on social responsibility or long-term relationships.

Big industries can be among the greatest offenders. Evidence indicates that Big Oil executives knew about the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels decades ago. But they left that data locked in the drawer while the rest of us fueled our gas guzzlers. Where was the ethical voice of public relations? We all know about Big Tobacco’s penchant for secrecy, as it’s well documented in the lawsuits that produced the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. These companies lied to us, and you can be sure their PR staffs were part of the narrative — the fake news.

Even well-intentioned/ethical PR types have their secrets. Remember those times when we should have called for transparency and didn’t? Or when we DID take an ethical stand, were overruled, then retreated to our offices to brood? A dozen such stories remain buried in my own conscience, and share them with students every chance I get.

Real PR professionals don’t deal in fake news. But we do manipulate news by the facts we reveal and how we frame them. We aren’t journalists in residence as much as we’re advocates, and that advocacy skews our perspective. We help clients succeed, and sometimes a bit of spin makes that job easier.

Is responsible advocacy possible? Certainly. But it requires the PR professional to shift from the role of advocate to the role of counselor. Responsible advocacy further requires the counselor to put public interest and social responsibility ahead of, or at least on par with, client interest. It’s sometimes a tough sell to the client.

PR, as a profession, must declare all-out war on fake news now. And we must kill it. With the declining influence of mainstream news media, businesses and governments no longer fret over the powerful watchdogs who once bought their ink by the barrel. While media still call out the misdeeds of government and business, no one fears them anymore. Compounding the problem is the willingness of the social networks, at least until recently, to let anyone create and share fake news. And thanks to some slick packaging, even educated media consumers have trouble deciding what’s real and what’s not.

You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, or so goes the axiom attributed to Abe Lincoln. But in a democracy you need only fool some of the people some of the time — and you can change history. When that change rests on lies, the entire system is in peril. Imagine a world in which you can’t believe with any certainty what anyone tells you or what any news organization publishes. Well, that world has arrived.

I don’t have a comprehensive solution to the fake news problem, other than calling on the PR profession to lead the fight. When we spot fake news we must call it out in real time. And when fake news pollutes our social networks we must report it to the administrators and pursue all avenues to have it removed.

In our own communications, we can no longer treat “truth” as a relative term that we define from our own perspective. Truth must be based on empirical evidence – not someone’s opinion or ideology. We must insist that our clients and employers produce data to back their claims. Further, we must adopt a near-religious commitment to transparency in our organizations’ actions and communications.

People lie, and that’s not going to change. But we don’t have to accept the lies or the liars, and we damn sure don’t want to to be part of it. If we don’t fight back, we risk becoming the liars for hire that people have called us for a hundred years.

5 thoughts on “PR must declare war on fake news — and kill it.

  1. But the battle must be waged subtly. I have a lot of intelligent, sensible friends – both conservative and liberal – who STILL can’t help themselves from sharing the latest sensationalist headlines from Breitbart, Occupy Democrats, or any of the other sources that occupy the bottom rungs of that “infographic” that has recently been making the rounds (http://imgur.com/gallery/iPLkz). A full frontal attack on #FakeNews only stands to drive these folks even deeper into their ideological bubbles, no matter how well-reasoned the argument.

    As covert attack will win this war, and it won’t happen overnight. How do we do it? Hell if I know, but it’s clear simply shouting “that’s not true!” isn’t getting us anywhere.

  2. Whether you recognize it or not, that is the response of white male privilege. Subtlety as a strategy is the response of someone with some kind of power over others be it money, position or status. Subtlety was not a tactic of Civil Rights, Women’s Suffrage or the Labor Movement, for example. These were all social movements that made America better and resistance, to include violence, where key in shifting the culture. Subtlety may have a tactical position in a multi-pronged campaign, but it is the siren song of subjugation by itself.

    Resistance, whether peaceful or violent, is a rally cry meant to inspire action and achieve progress as history has proven it can. So to say, “… shouting ‘that’s not true!’ isn’t getting us anywhere,” is to contribute to #fakenews. It’s just not factual as the achievements above demonstrate.

    What I think Prof. Sledzik is calling for are members of the PR community to reorient themselves toward an ethical standard that contributes to the creation and sustainment of — to borrow from Heath — a more fully functional society. To be a part of the solution, not the problem, even if that means resisting complacency in the best case. The side effect to this idea is that you may lose a few Facebook friends, but based on your comments it appears they were living in a bubble they were unwilling to escape anyway.

  3. Bill – The distinctions between “true” and “not true” are often a little fuzzy, and they depend on the perspective of the individual. In the most egregious examples, it’s quite clear. But so much of political “fact” is actually opinion. Even the assertion that “fat and cholesterol can cause heart disease” omits that some people develop heart disease regardless of dietary cholesterol. An ongoing frustration for the average person is how medical studies are reported and the whipsaw effect of findings that are inconclusive but reported otherwise. Case in point: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/102/2/235.full.

    We certainly can be a conscience for our organizations, provided our chain of command promotes such a role. Otherwise, we shall be dismissed or fired if we fail to successfully advocate for our organizations. It’s a matter of personal ethics as to whether one will work as an advocate for an organizations with which we disagree; I won’t, for example, work for a cigarette company as a matter of personal choice. I shall not judge, however, those who do. It’s personal.

    Thus lies the problem — obvious falsehoods indeed need stamping out. But whither the grayer areas?

  4. As you said, “audiences don’t always know the truth, and they aren’t always smart enough to recognize a ruse when they see it.” Therefore, we have a moral responsibility to cut through the tabloid banter and stand up and advocate for truth, facts and evidence in all manners of communication — for the sake of our friends, family, neighbors and the global community.

    You are right. In an era where search engines and social feeds are considered trusted sources of information, it is the duty of true PR professionals to council their clients (ALL clients regardless of size, industry or influence) on the importance of producing content that is truthful, intelligent and responsible.

    After all, you never know who is listening.

    The reality is that ours is a global society, and the content we produce has no borders. And while censorship is never (and can never be) the answer, we have a professional obligation to promote the truth at all costs and to call out those who continue to manufacture and disseminate fake news.

    Great piece, professor.

  5. My apologies for the late return to this conversation. I’m honestly shocked to see comments on the blog these days. Most folks don’t bother. I miss the long and nuanced discussions this space once hosted. So thanks to both Aarons, Sean and Abbey for reviving the tradition.

    There is nothing in your comments for me to dispute, though I do tend to side with Aaron T on the need for confrontational resistance on the matter of fake news and all the other lies flying about in D.C. these days. It presents for PR professionals the opportunity to call bullshit within our own organizations and to demand that our professional groups (PRSA, IABC, etc.) do the same. But I’m also sympathetic to Aaron S, since I live and work in the same part of the country and have seen first-hand the futility of confronting certain folks with facts.

    I plan to write a bit about this topic here at the blog this year, but also to wage a mini-war on fake news via my Facebook page. And Sean, your point about the gray areas isn’t lost on my. PR has long operated in those gray areas, tilting our messages to support our clients. That’s called persuasion, and it’s part of the whole Free Speech idea that the country was built on.

    What concerns me most, I guess — and Abbey seized on it — is that too many of our citizens seem unable to process evidence logically. But this also isn’t new. We — the professional messengers — produce most effectively when our messages trade not on facts but on values and emotions. I teach that stuff, but always within an ethical framework, I hope.

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