By Steve McComish
Donald Trump didn’t invent the phrase “Fake News” but his branding of organisations which he perceives as peddling misinformation has done much to popularise the term in the public consciousness. But what exactly does fake news mean anyway? Is it real? And if so what are the implications for business leaders?
Fake news is nothing new. In fact it can be traced back to the birth of the printing press and beyond. In England during the 16th century anti-Catholic pamphlets did much to vilify Rome and to strengthen resolve in the new Protestant religion. Those early readers may only have ever seen one other printed book – The Bible. They may well have regarded any printed word as truth and very few questioned the ‘facts’ they read. Later of course the public became more aware of the concept of propaganda and grew much more cynical about the content of newspapers and broadcasts. As this consciousness evolved journalism developed as a profession and standards of fact checking and verification improved tremendously.
By the end of the 20th Century organisations went to enormous lengths to check the veracity of stories prior to publication. And any unverifiable facts which did make it into print were often followed by legal action and the subsequent publication of apologies and retractions. But fast forward to today and suddenly everything is up for grabs once again.
The rise of the internet and of 24 hour rolling news channels has led to a massive fall in the revenue of traditional news organisations, most notably the newspapers who have struggled to make the online model pay. Huge numbers of journalists have been laid off and an entire generation of would-be reporters have found themselves unemployable after college. Many who even ten years earlier would have been able to take up traineeships on city newspapers have instead found themselves trying to eke out a living freelancing or waiting tables while blogging on the side. Others have turned to more stable professions such as teaching or accountancy.
As news teams shrink outlets become much more dependent on contributors such as freelancers and external agencies. Many outlets now take contributed copy and publish at the push of a button. The assumption seems to be that the contributor has done his or her fact checking but the question is seldom even asked. Digital news outlets such as BuzzFeed seem to have ripped up the rule book completely when it comes to checking the facts of a story.
Their recent decision to publish a report about the alleged antics of Mr Trump when he visited Moscow in 2013 came alongside an admission that they had been unable to verify the report but had decided to publish anyway so readers could make up their own minds. Such an admission would have been unthinkable a few years ago. If this is the new editorial standard then what follows? It’s like saying we will print any rumour or hearsay that crosses our path and readers can choose to believe what they like. Surely such an attitude shows a total disregard for their own audience who deserve to read reports that have at least passed through some filter of truth?
This reliance on outsourced content creates huge opportunities for businesses and for PR agencies such as our own. But these opportunities should be handled with real responsibility. Don’t rush in with half truths and spin. Instead consider your real values and design a strategy to convey them.
Ultimately the real judges are the public and in today’s sophisticated digital age consumers of information should not be underestimated. Trust in a brand takes years to build but can be destroyed in moments. Lying to the public for your own ends is unforgivable and thanks to social media such mistakes can be amplified and spread exponentially.
All of this means businesses have to play the long game. Forget quick wins which may be obtained through spin and instead focus on integrity and truth. Build a reputation for dealing in facts and for checking those facts. Let news outlets and the public understand that information coming from you will always have the ring of truth and will always be verified. Be a beacon of light in a sea of misinformation and fake news. The rewards will be long lasting and valuable.
Steve McComish is MD at London PR agency.