Weber Shandwick roundtable to start dialogue on fighting fake news

The agency is bringing stakeholders in the comms world to the same table for a brainstorming session, scheduled in Q1 of next year.

A fake news story targeted this Washington DC pizza parlor earlier this month. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, by sinksanctity)
A fake news story targeted this Washington DC pizza parlor earlier this month. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, by sinksanctity)

NEW YORK CITY: Weber Shandwick is doing its part in the fight against fake news.

Chairman Jack Leslie laid out core principles for how Weber Shandwick will combat fake news in an email sent to employees worldwide.

Among other things, Weber Shandwick will integrate the "highest standards of integrity and accuracy" into its content creation and client counsel. It will also mitigate fake news’ damage "by insisting on truthful reporting" and refraining from doing business with anyone that "deliberately traffics in fake news or distributes content to fake news sites."

Weber Shandwick will also support media literacy efforts at the K-12 and college level and share information and insights on "content manipulation" and the media landscape with employees, clients, and the PR industry.

The first step the agency will take toward fighting fake news is collaborating with a range of industry stakeholders. It’s organizing a meeting of news outlets, academia, trade associations, and others to brainstorm antidotes for the social media-driven "plague" that has become top of mind this past election cycle.

The meeting is scheduled to take place sometime in Q1 of next year, with a series of meetings anticipated to follow, Leslie explained.

"We [the PR industry] are key players in an ecosystem that needs mending," Leslie told PRWeek. "We all have a stake in truthful comms. First and foremost, we have to do that in our own company. Then we have to develop broader standards for our own industry, which we hope to do. We need to educate people on the importance of truthful and accurate information. And we can work with a larger group of stakeholders to find solutions."

Fake news reared its head this weekend when the Pakistani defense minister threatened Israel with a nuclear strike after being duped by a bogus report.

The incident drew comparisons to the PizzaGate conspiracy theory that led a lone gunman to investigate the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington, DC. That unsubstantiated report was propagated by the son of Donald Trump’s nominee for national security advisor, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn.

While fake news has a long history dating back centuries, recent developments in technology have juiced up its pernicious effects. Leslie called it a "phenomenon that’s part of a perfect storm" of political polarization, hyper-connectivity, and a declining trust in media.

"It undermines democracy with real implications to our business because trust is essential in effectively communicating," Leslie said.

Asked what concrete steps the agency can actually take following the roundtable, Leslie said, "We’ll see what people agree to," noting other efforts already afoot.

For example, Facebook recently integrated changes to its News Feed that down vote and flag fake news stories with the help of third-party fact-checkers, such as Snopes and Politifact. Those changes came about a month after a Buzzfeed report found viral fake news stories outperformed real news stories in engagement.

"The biggest problem is how you both assure the free flow of information and the means of identifying untruthful content," Leslie noted. "That will be a constant tension."

Asked if Weber Shandwick would combat or discredit a fake news story that benefited a client, Leslie said he doesn’t talk in hypothetical terms.

"We would never knowingly engage in a fake news story," he added.

This story was updated on December 27 to refer to Weber Shandwick's forthcoming event as a roundtable.

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