TOP Talk

New Rules of Engagement in the Rise of Fake News

In the last six months, “fake news” has become a household phrase. Its current status took root during the 2016 presidential election, and has continued to grow to the point where many people can’t tell the difference between real news or “alternative facts.”

The phenomenon of fake news is something that’s always existed, going back as far as the 20th-century penny presses and the days of yellow journalism, but over time reputable news sources have established fact-checking procedures to avoid journalism scandals that could discredit and damage their reputation.

As digital continues to transform the industry with an ever-growing list of channels, brands becoming content creators, and content’s value being measured by shares and likes rather than accuracy, how do we as PR professionals—whose job relies on people’s trust in the mediaguide our clients through this tsunami of uncertainty and ambiguous information?

I recently attended a panel discussion with the Publicity Club of New England’s Masters’ Institute to dive into this topic further. Joining 20 of my peers from PR agencies and corporate communications departments, we rehashed the state of today’s media environment and its impact on businesses’ communications strategies and social programs. Much of our discussion centered around how we can continue to protect and enhance our clients’ and businesses’ reputations while positioning them as credible sources in this new reality of fake news.

As a result of fake news, audiences are more skeptical than ever, so how do you maintain credibility in a world where most content is unfiltered or lacks objectivity? Here are four takeaways from this discussion to help you find a strong and honest voice with your key constituencies:

Put a face on your company

As many of the panelists agreed, one of the key ways to create a credible voice is by positioning one or more of your executives through specific channels as the face of the organization to strike a real connection with your target audience. As Anne Mattina, Professor and Chair of the Communications Department at Stonehill College stated, “You can always tell the falsity in a real person, where it’s easier to hide the truth behind a brand.” Creating a blog dedicated specifically to the CEO provides a platform to amplify key messages in addition to his/her expertise, leadership and authenticity. The trick, however, with this strategy is to make sure your executives can back up any words put forward. Before making any statements related to company values, products or services, ask the important question of “can we deliver on that?” Also important is ensuring that external claims match internal actions. Don’t “show it” unless you “live it.”

Showcase the human side of your story

With the sizzle of social media, including animated memes and gifs, the online audience has become accustomed to this more visually appealing style of storytelling, and (lucky for fake news sources) is less interested in the facts. To capitalize on this style of content consuming, look for opportunities to share your voice in a way that appeals to your audience’s emotions whether it be humor, joy or pulling on their heartstrings. Adding some elements of surprise and delight can go a long way, especially when your online competition goes beyond the likely suspects (e.g. also vying for airtime from the latest viral video like the guys from Dude Perfect who took the bottle-flip challenge to the extreme). Through bylined articles and blog posts, try to address an issue your customers are struggling with and offer concrete advice that does not come across as a sales pitch, but is genuine and displays your true desire to help them.

Use video as your truth ticket

Visual content can help combat fake news and win over viewers. Once again, as messages are delivered directly from the speaker’s mouth, it’s hard to argue against its validity. Video offers an opportunity to capture visual content that can tell your story and/or support claims made with images as real and compelling proof points.

Bring back the editor

Another key strategy for managing your company’s reputation in today’s online obscurity is to implement an editing and fact-checking process for any content piece created, just like the traditional newsroom. Now that we have the ability to create our own content, post opinions, and quickly tweet out comments, the role of the editor has become more important than ever, and just as vital to the story as the reporters themselves. A story that has been edited and fact checked is more likely to speak truth while unconfirmed claims will have been questioned or discarded. It’s this process we all should be using to discern news content today. This is an essential message especially for digital natives. Professor Mattina pointed out, this generation that has grown up with a different perspective on news platforms, thanks to social media sites like Facebook, can sometimes have a tough time making a distinction between alternative facts and truth.

Fake news does not appear to be going away anytime soon, especially as online engagement continues to take on a stronger role in communication programs and click bait drives publishing dollars and essentially prioritizes what we’re viewing. But by implementing some of these strategies and staying true to your brand, authenticity can go a long way in cutting through the clutter and winning over the digital audience who matters most.

Colleen Irish

About Colleen Irish

What inspires me? Innovative brands on a mission to push status quo