“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 choices. 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.