“Fake News”. A compound noun that quite simply means information published by the media that is not real. From the 2016 Trump candidacy to 2017’s immigration and health insurance reform, to Net Neutrality, to the #MeToo movement, it seems the facts around any current issue are harder than ever to uncover. People are forced to sort fact from fiction, trustworthy media from clickbait. We all consume news through various social media channels which are, by design, built for distributing and sharing content quickly and consequently, without much thought. This puts credible media organizations and journalists in a tough spot. And it makes our jobs as public relations and branding professionals harder, but more important than ever.
Communications is my career. Literally, helping clients identify and shape a story that communicates their credibility is my livelihood. Providing the media with access to our clients’ expertise is a routine task. Helping clients increase awareness of their brand through traditional and digital marketing is our agency’s entire purpose. I’ve lived the evolution of this trade for 20 years and can say first-hand: this job isn’t getting easier. But it’s perhaps more valuable than ever before.
Here’s why. As a public relations and marketing professional, I work hard to bring value to both my clients and the media. To help clients share their stories while upholding the highest ethical standards (i.e. we won’t pitch a story that’s garbage, hasn’t been fact-checked on our end or just isn’t newsworthy). I wince when I hear journalists talk about how annoying PR people are. We work hard to be an asset, not an annoyance.
Now that “fake news” is a household term, it seems more overwhelming than ever to combat it. Social media helps fake news stories (or sloppy journalism, or content disguised as journalism) to spread rapidly, but it’s also a channel we can use to spread the truth.
At Fluent, we live in both worlds: Earned media (coverage as a result of media relations) and owned media (content we produce for our clients to help them spread their brand message). We believe that both have value and can effectively work together. With that in mind, here’s some advice on how to take on the fake news juggernaut:
- Be careful with who/how you align your brand. Consumers are concerned about news stories they can trust, but brands also need to be aware of misinformation that can harm their image. Take the example of New Balance – a company that quickly got branded the “Official Shoes of White People,” after a quote from its VP of Public Affairs was taken out of context and used to spread the story that New Balance had come out in full support of President-elect Donald Trump.
- Take the time to check sources. Anyone can publish an article online. Check to make sure the story is coming from a reliable outlet and that it’s written by an actual, credible person with authority to speak to the topic. Does the expert/author have credibility? A quick online search can clue you into the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the writer’s credentials. Keep an eye on sources quoted within the article. Stories that are supported by other credible sources are more likely to be true.
- Read the whole story. Headlines are designed to suck readers in, but with so many people relying on social media for quick information, the whole story doesn’t always come across. Facebook has been testing changes to their algorithm which determines the types of information you’ll see in your news feed, potentially making it harder for content from credible news sources to appear. Don’t just skim headlines, dive deeper to make sure you’re getting the big picture to help determine credibility. If your organization shares curated content through corporate social media channels, or if you’re sharing it personally within a professional context, this step is extra important to ensure that your brand is aligned with highly credible sources and doesn’t fall victim to sharing clickbait or overly biased reporting.
- Is it supposed to be funny? It may seem harder than ever to distinguish between satire and reality when there are plenty of online outlets making light of current events with humorous stories designed to be over the top. New Maine News (aka The Maine version of The Onion) is a good example of a parody that isn’t fake news. It’s just funny. In these crazy times, we can all benefit from the comedic relief these stories provide but don’t put stock in them as actual news stories. Again, be mindful of your audience when sharing memes or satire around an important issue.
- Is the information/news widespread? Can you find this information anywhere else? Do a quick search to see if any other sources are reporting the same information. Multiple media outlets reporting the same story gives it greater credibility.
- Know the difference between content and news. We mentioned owned media (a blog post your company writes, a white paper, etc.). Then there’s paid media (advertising, sponsored content, etc.). There are plenty of gray areas when it comes to the types of information we’re digesting. Bill Moyers published a helpful guide to Distinguishing News from Sponsored Content.
- Be an asset to journalists. Is your story idea supported by facts? Are the facts or data timely and from credible sources? Credible journalists will only report on the facts. Together, PR pros and journalists can generate the highest quality stories.
Whether you’re a business owner, an in-house marketer, a social media pro or any other professional sharing content on behalf of a brand, consider it your responsibility to be a reliable source for real news. Make your brand known in your industry for sharing accurate, helpful information. Determine reliable sources for curated content and trusted authors to keep you on top of industry trends. Most importantly, don’t ever spread fake news – even if it’s something you wish to be true.