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Public Relations Must Confront Its Dark Side to Fight Fake News

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Fake news is a plague on the media landscape, strangling public opinion and discourse. You’d think the public relations industry would be leading the charge against it. Why isn’t it? A recent article by Alan Kelly suggests why, and it ain’t pretty: If PR were to seriously investigate the causes of fake news, then it would have to confront unpleasant truths about itself. PR’s reluctance to do so is a lost opportunity to advance itself and help society.

By Bill Paarlberg—I’ve been wondering why the public relations industry hasn’t put together a concerted effort to fight fake news. We’re the experts on using the media to change public opinion, so who better to lead the charge?

PR industry spokespeople have been conspicuously cautious on the fake news front. PRSA’s CEO, Joseph Truncale suggested: “Communicators will need to tell stories that align business objectives and connect with their audiences’ passions.” Jane Dvorak, PRSA’s 2017 Chair, issued a statement that was similarly tentative on the intentional use of fake news: “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts… We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”

The many PR pundits who have spoken out on the topic tend to stick to what they know, addressing fake news from their individual perspectives of PR. Gini Dietrich (who has just provided a bang-up Measurement Life interview, by the way) offers fake news advice about being prepared to protect a brand. Likewise CARMA’s own Chip Griffin advises us to pay more careful attention to media monitoring. Katie Creaser in PR News provides additional guidance: “Use real sources… pitch real news… be ethical and transparent… use your powers for good.”

Ethics? What ethics?

This kind of Do Your Job Better! and Play Fair! advice is well-intentioned, but likely won’t make a dent in the larger, society-wide problem. The big, bad fake news problem that affects our commonweal exists on a different plane than day-to-day PR efforts. It includes a general lack of trust in the media and government, the media consumer’s choose-your-own-news construction of a preferred reality, and the use of demagoguery and alternative facts to manipulate public opinion.

Will Katie Creaser’s admonition to “be ethical and transparent” have any effect on #therealdonaldtrump as he continues to paralyze the news media with tweets calculated to sow doubt and confusion? Of course not. In fact, that’s exactly what has given Mr. Trump an edge, his willingness to play without regard to rules that so many pundits still assume define the game.

This is PR’s area of expertise. Why is it sitting on its hands?

An alternate facts media bubble continues to reinforce itself, divide the populace, and dominate public policy, yet the PR industry remains almost silent. In the face of this challenge to our social fabric, our democracy, and to the fundamental relations of our public, why hasn’t the public relations industry stepped up?

Katie Creaser did steer me to an effort to organize an industry-wide response to fake news. It comes from Dick Martin’s thoughtful blog about ethics and PR. He calls for the PR industry to have, “…a mechanism for responding to social issues… we should be organized in a network of PR agencies and clients with a common strategy to address a cause at the heart of what we’re about—teaching people how to be savvy media consumers.” Excellent advice.

Katie Creaser goes on to hint at an underlying problem: “Far too often, [PR pros have] become used car salesmen, using contributor opportunities as a way to push corporate messaging through empty, meaningless op-eds… poorly written PR content is the junk food of journalism and it damages the reputation of its publisher. When we are selfish in our craft and move away from quality and ethics in favor of bulk media coverage, we’re contributing to the problem.”

Fake news: the unholy offspring of PR

Can it be that PR has contributed to the problem of fake news? In his post “Fake News: PR’s Little Monster,” Alan Kelly doubles down on that conjecture, suggesting that the difference between PR and fake news is one of degree rather than kind. He contends that not only do both PR and fake news use the same underlying strategies to achieve their goals, but that our recent epidemic of fake news is the unholy offspring of public relations efforts of the past.

For some quick evidence of this, notice President Trump’s most troublesome tweets. He makes obvious use of the same cast-doubt-on-the-facts strategy that was employed to such great effect by big tobacco in denying cancer in the 60s, and more recently with global warming by climate deniers. As Katie Paine says, “Fake news is old news.”

PR: Afraid to look in the mirror

TMS readers will remember Alan Kelly, a strategy theorist who focuses on the fundamentals of conflict, from his previous articles in The Measurement Standard. In “Decoding Trump’s Spin: A System to Identify, Analyze, and Understand It” he lays out the basics of his Playmaker Influence Decision System™ for naming and analyzing the fundamental strategies of persuasion. At the 2015 Summit on the Future of Communications, he, Dr. David Geddes, and I advanced the intriguing notion that PR strategy could be measured in much the same way we now track key messages and other aspects of PR programs.

Here is the gist of Alan’s insight on the relationship between PR and fake news:

“What I am sure of is that the industries of influence – PR and communications in particular – have for more than a half-century, sought to sell their function and to beautify its intent and strategies… They have disguised what is a fundamentally competitive purpose with more palatable terms, like trust, credibility, reputation and authenticity. But this has all been to advance the points of view, products and services of governments and corporations, mostly, not the social good, not really… Now, as these seeds are fully rooted, few like what they see. Politicos, CEOs, activists and, yes, terrorists, are hijacking the discipline.”

Seen in this light, the reason the PR industry does not aggressively confront the problem of fake news is that it is afraid to look in the mirror. PR instinctively knows that it and fake news share the same roots. And it can’t truly investigate fake news unless it also looks at its own dark side, a prospect too uncomfortable to bear.

Now Is PR’s great opportunity

This is PR’s moment to step up, to do a great service for society and itself. The similarities of PR and fake news deserve careful study and consideration. What are their root strategies and the psychology behind them? How can the dark side of PR be recognized, measured, and restrained? What is the role of ethics?

Fake news throttles public discourse and damages society. PR could and should be leading the fight against it. So what if examining the problem means also examining the unpleasant fundamentals of how PR is done? The way for PR to make progress is to confront its dark side—to learn from it, rather than deny and ignore it.

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Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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