PR Must Play a Lead Role in Combating Fake News

PR panel discusses ways communicators must combat fake news.
PR panel discusses ways communicators must combat fake news.

Fake News was examined through the lenses of public relations, media and academia during this week’s annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC).

Three separate panels featured insights from PR pros, journalists and academics during the huge academic summit in Chicago. All panelists agreed fake news isn’t a new phenomenon, but potential consequences are alarming.

The critical importance for public relations professionals to adhere to the highest standards of ethics and honesty was underscored by the panel on which I participated. Each PR panelist shared key takeaways regarding how our profession must question and challenge fake news. Here are those takeaways:

Calmetta Coleman, Director of Communications for Civic Engagement, The University of Chicago

The stakes are high. “Fake news” is not new, but today’s media tools allow false information to spread faster and farther than ever before. Left unchecked, this poses a serious threat to journalism as the “fourth estate” and to honest civil discourse.

Do your own research. Fake news thrives on the Internet, but so do facts. If a story seems too good to be true–because it confirms either your own beliefs or your worst fears–search other sources. And make sure those sources are independent of each other and not just repeating bad information. Actively seek the truth.

Counter and correct. If you or your organization are the subject of fake news, address the issue as soon as possible. Use your own channels, including social media, to counter inaccuracies and misinformation. If possible, ask the offending media outlet for a correction. Do not allow false information to go unchallenged.

Gene Reineke, Chief Executive Officer, Hawthorne Strategy Group

Rule # 1 – Don’t believe everything you read or hear automatically, just because you read or heard about it from a source via the internet.

Rule # 2 – Just because information/news may be coming from a traditional or ‘trusted source’ doesn’t mean it’s absolutely 100% accurate. If something later becomes shown to be incorrect in a story it doesn’t automatically make it ‘fake news’, but rather a mistake that needs to be corrected, especially if it’s from a ‘trusted source’.

Rule #3 – always follow the John Quincy Adams quote (also used by another former U.S. President, Ronald Reagan): “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Facts matter. Opinions are just that – opinions.

Juan-Carlos Molleda, Ph.D., Dean and Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon (Panel Moderator)

Become an Authentic Voice. In this era of fake news, alternative facts, propaganda, and manipulation, organizations must be true to themselves and embrace transparency. This requires articulating and maintaining an original and reliable voice anchored in organizational values. A clear and strong voice that will be heard and secure public attention, especially in times of turmoil. This will be beneficial when an organization needs to clarify rumors, miscommunication, and/or falsehood.

Contribute to the Integrity of the News Media. Historically, public relations and communication management professionals have closely worked with journalists and, in general, news media producers. This relationship should be strengthened today more than ever before. Organizations should provide accurate information and timely access to corporate sources. This will allow journalists to do their jobs and maintain their credibility over time.

Social Listening in the Name of the Game. Organizations should place social media management as a core strategic practice at the center of their communication function. Couching and training the personnel in charge of social media management is essential. Letting inaccurate or false information unchecked will amplify exponentially by the minute. Here, the ideal strategy is to creatively correct the misinformation and closely work with journalists and media partners in saturating traditional and virtual spaces with facts and clarifications. Monitoring public reactions will allow organizations and journalists to be active listeners and interact with audiences seeking answers.

Phil Gomes, Senior Vice President, U.S. B2B Digital, Edelman

Despite a much-maligned profile in the popular imagination, communications professionals must not be afraid to advocate the ethical high-ground position. We see three moves ahead.

Advocacy journalism (not to be confused with “fake news”) is a reality and pining for the days of “objective journalism” is to harbor nostalgia for a halcyon era that never actually existed.

What is “real” or “fake” news will be just as much about the media brands you trust as attestations that media properties will earn (and be forced to maintain) from the public. These attestations will be recorded on a blockchain or similar technology that exists outside the control of any one party or consortia.

Ron Culp, Professional Director, Graduate PRAD Program, DePaul University

Consider The Source. With the proliferation of parody and agenda-driven “news” sites, confirm the authenticity of the source before forming opinions or sharing information.

Control Your Biases. Just because the alleged news supports your point of view, don’t share it if you’re not fully confident about the facts or source.

Don’t Beat Dead Horses. Unless you have a relevant new point to share, avoid feeling compelled to weigh in with redundant comments. In most cases, a simple LIKE will do.

Fact Check. If you have any doubt about the authenticity of a news story, check with nonpartisan fact-checking services such as FactCheck.Org and

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