The role of PR during times of fake news

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Fake news. Until a year or so ago, we probably wouldn’t have understood the term. But now we cannot help but know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soon becomes added to the Oxford Dictionary or named “phrase of the year”. The concept has played a fundamental part in how we currently understand and engage with information, so much so that the president of the US is not only incredibly vocal about news he deems fake, but, if the rumours are even half to be believed, was elected on the back of it.

Propaganda and the use of news and information to drive beliefs and certain causes are nothing new. But what is truly alarming is the out-and-out attack on media by a leader of a democratic country, and the demeaning of anything that challenges him or that he perceives as against his agenda, as fake.

Once a free and (somewhat) unencumbered media is deemed as “fake”, it delegitimises a number of things, not least the freedom of the public to challenge measures done by those in authority when they believe that what they are doing is wrong. When a leader starts to decide what information is “correct” and what is not, it is not a long jump to an authoritarian era where the only news and information allowed is state-owned propaganda, controlled by the “thought police” that, until recently, we believed were exclusive to Orwellian novels and tin-pot dictators.

Back here on our own shores, we are incredibly lucky (and I don’t say this lightly) to have a free and challenging press. We cannot underestimate the value of this.

But the concept of a free and objective press (however much this is or isn’t a reality) has been under fire from many sides for a while. And we, as PR practitioners (and the wider advertising and marketing industry) need to have their back. Not adding to the chaos and the attacks.
Not too long ago it was alleged that a local PR business was involved in a fake news campaign for a political party in the lead up to our local government elections. According to the allegations, local “influencers” were paid to spread good news about said party (which is common to most, if not all, “influencer” campaigns). The worrying bit was that they were also paid to spread fake news about the other parties, sharing false documents purportedly made by these other parties, along with nasty stories about them. Around this time, too, we also saw the birth of local fake news sites and the emergence of “Paid Twitter” — an army of twitter trolls, attacking the enemies of their powerful bankrollers.

Even more recently, we’ve seen allegations that the UK-based Bell Pottinger PR agency had been dabbling in influencing South African politics and race relations on behalf of our infamous local villains, the Gupta family. If these allegations are to be believed, the business was paid handsomely to spread false news about those who stand in the way of the family’s ambitions, while flooding outlets and social media channels with propaganda-led missives that obscured the truth and drove divisions.

There’s a line that is being crossed here and we in the PR industry need to be very, very careful that we don’t cross it.

Before the widespread emergence of social media, the majority of any news and information that we received came through these traditional media channels. The restriction of who could and couldn’t distribute information, meant, largely, that a sort of gentleman’s code was followed: media outlets largely attempted to be free, fair, objective and report news that was backed up with research and solid facts (I’m discounting the tabloids and their attention-grabbing headlines about aliens and tokoloshes for argument’s sake here).

Then the explosion of the internet and social media happened and, with the blink of an eye, literally anyone could become a publisher. Which meant that any old rubbish could be shared and presented as the truth. Coupled with this is the radical shrinking of the traditional media. You only have to go into any newsroom and see that most newspaper houses are not just working on skeleton staff, they are literally, Miss Haversham-like, sitting in dusty buildings holding on to an era that is fast disappearing.

There just isn’t the time or resources available for them to research, interrogate and create the news stories that are needed to fill the endless needs of 24-hour channels and an audience demanding real-time updates. And in this rush, unsubstantiated “fake news” gets pushed out as “real news” — one only needs to see the chaos that ensued this past weekend when Huffington Post South Africa published a piece from a person, who didn’t exist, calling for sectors of the population to lose voting rights. Quite rightly, the publication was called to account, deleted the post, and issued an apology, while its local partner, Media24, announced that it would be investigating the situation.

But how much fake stuff enters the public domain, and how much of it is consumed by an audience that is not tech-savvy and cynical enough to question it? It all means that our very jobs as PRs — the creating of news and sharing of content on behalf of our clients and brands — play an ever-bigger role. But we need to be curators with integrity and be responsible in that the news that we are creating is true and grounded in reality. Media, and the public, need to know that, when we share this news, there is a fundamental basis in truth.

There is enough ‘fakeness’ and rubbish out there. We cannot and should not be adding to this.

It’s not even just about ethics. We will do ourselves out of jobs if we become the purveyors of fake news. The only reason we are able to be successful is if we have good relationships with the media and the public who receive this information, and that they trust us.

Once that trust is gone, our industry will soon follow.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.