Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Fake news, facts and the PR agenda

It seems you can't read a news bulletin at the moment without the topic or question of fake news arising. It seems to be a familiar concept for many, but it's only now that people in power, and in the media, are becoming (perhaps overly) concerned about the implications.

The crux of the argument is that news should be factual, that it should be current, relevant and informed. For many, journalism as a whole has been seen as the 'quest for the truth', writing what others do not want written, searching for the hidden angle, uncovering the covered up. Of course, these are ideals, not that any industry is exempt from such admirable aspirations. 

But in essence, news reporting is meant to be about what's 'new' - and whatever value we attribute to this concept. 

The very rise of fake news as a stream of information is perhaps an antidote to the issues that journalism and news reporting face today; that nobody trusts the news anymore. As politicians have fallen greatly out of favour, so too have reporters in the wake of phone hacking scandals and an increased awareness that reporting the news isn't just about reporting the facts anymore and does not come without an agenda.

For a long time now, the PR profession has been considered as the 'dark arts' to the 'truth seeking' journalism counterpart. Spin has been the name of the game and our recognisable role models, for those outside of PR practice, have ranged from the slimey (Alastair Campbell) and the sleazy (Max Clifford) real life examples, to the tyrannical, expletive driven manipulator  (BBC's The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker) and the hapless label-loving lush (Eddie Monsoon from Ab Fab) in parodistic fiction. 

These are the icons the industry has had on a public level and they have worked to do nothing more than give PR a PR problem. 

Even when working with colleagues in complimentary fields of marketing, promotion and advertising, the label given to what we did was 'fluff', with one client actually nicknaming me (in jest) 'Fluffy Edmonds'.

The main quibble I believe journalism has with PR is that we have an agenda. We are paid by an organisation to further its objectives - and this seems to fly in the face of the quest for truth.

“PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives.
It works primarily through the use of media relations and other forms of third-party endorsement.”

Morris and Goldsworthy, PR – A Persuasive Industry?

PR's are the ultimate agenda setters - we have a clear objective and will do whatever we can to further this. 

The CIPR sees this function through a softer lens:

“Public relations is the discipline that looks after an organisation's reputation. Its aim is to win understanding and support, and influence opinion and behaviour.
“It establishes and maintains goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

Chartered Institute of Public Relations

The main quibble I believe journalism has with PR is that we have an agenda. We are paid by an organisation to further its objectives - and this seems to fly in the face of the quest for truth.

It could be argued that PR gave birth to the concept of fake news, or at least 'news creation'. The perception is that PR professionals deal in half truths, spinning a new angel or use diversionary tactics to hide the facts, so it's not a huge leap to suggest that people believe that what we do in PR is based upon this premise. I think we can at least agree that as PR's, we create news stories, sometimes from nothing. We devise strategies and prepare campaign plans to build a narrative that suits our clients and their objectives and sometimes this means making more out of what we have. Other times, we're required to create something from nothing, setting up a stunt, commissioning research or putting together a poll to start a conversation and put our clients at the heart of it.

For me, rather than framing the profession as spin, we should be seen as facilitators active in the art of storytelling; yes, we know who the main characters are the the storyline we want to weave, but it all has to be a non-fiction tale and something people will want to pick up and read in the first place for it to be a successful work.

“The public relations person functions essentially as a journalist in residence, whose job it is to report objectively information about the organisation to the public.”

Grunig and Hunt

Our intentions are open and honest - 'we're here on behalf of X to tell you about Y and Z' - and the media we work with know what's driving our agenda. To consider the press as 'agenda-less', simply wanting to find and report the facts, is a concept that just doesn't correspond to popular opinion. Fake news is the response to the extremes we have seen in news reporting where facts are outweighed by hyperbole and opinion.

Facts themselves aren't the be all and end all, of course. It can be argued that we now live in a 'confirmation bias' society - where people tend to embrace information that supports their own beliefs and ideals, rejecting all others that are the contrary. The New Yorker has recently shared a piece about the reasons why facts do not change opinion, and we only have to look to the Trump election and presidency saga so far to see this in action. They look to the rise of 'alternative facts' in the article and with the current focus on fake news and its function of misinformation, it is clear that we perhaps would rather buy into a well-told, relatable story than the real news facing us today.

Post by: Kelly O'Hanlon, Senior Lecturer in PR at BCU


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