Media literacy is the social issue of our time

An increasingly put-upon media has started to retaliate against President Trump's fake news accusations, led by The New York Times with its 'hard truth' campaign - it is in the best interests of everyone in PR to join this effort.

The New York Times' 'hard truth' campaign underlines its investment in quality journalism.
The New York Times' 'hard truth' campaign underlines its investment in quality journalism.

Research firm Gallup tells us two out of every three U.S. adults don’t believe the news and that trust in mass media has sunk to an all-time low.

Our new leader, President Trump, says reporters are among "the most dishonest people in the world."

And The Donald has also taken to calling respected broadcasters "enemies of the American people."

Just today (Friday), the White House barred major media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Politico, BuzzFeed, LA Times, New York Daily News, BBC, and The Hill from a daily briefing by press secretary Sean Spicer.

The issue of media freedom and so-called fake news was very much on the agenda at Wednesday night’s presentation of the Larry Foster Awards for Integrity in Public Relations by the Arthur W. Page Center.

Alan Murray, chief content officer at Time and EIC of Fortune magazine; Anne Barkelew, founding GM, senior partner of FleishmanHillard; and Dick Martin, former EVP of PR at AT&T, were the inaugural honorees in what will be an annual occasion moving forward.

All three recipients emphasized the importance of fighting the trend toward labeling respected and mainstream media as fake news and joining the battle to maintain the credibility of the media in general.

As Martin said in his acceptance remarks, "We in public relations may have other ways to reach stakeholders, but if the credibility of media is undermined, we all lose" and "truth is no longer determined by conformity to proven facts but by how well it meshes with pre-existing feelings."

He went on to say: "The public relations industry can’t stand by and hope this situation will change. Media literacy may be the social issue of our time. Addressing it is in our own interest."

The tagline of The New York Times’ effort is "Truth is now more important than ever," and the campaign produced by ad agency Droga5 will air in various places, including during the Academy Awards on Sunday night.

A spokesperson for The Gray Lady told PRWeek: "This campaign is about fostering a dialogue about what it takes to report the truth and why quality independent journalism deserves broad support."

This is a great start. But let’s face it, the primary purpose of the campaign is to promote the Times, increase awareness of its brand, and sell more advertising and subscriptions.

We need to do more than this, both in the media and in PR.

I was particularly struck by Martin’s suggestion that the PR industry follow advertising in setting up something similar to what the Ad Council has done to respond to social issues such as fake news. All efforts under this umbrella are created by volunteer agencies and rely on donated media space.

Interpublic Group agency Weber Shandwick has already started a conversation about fake news by convening a roundtable discussion of media, industry bodies, clients, and by commissioning research around the subject.

I believe this is an issue that supersedes all normal competitive instincts and is something clients and agencies across the board should support. Industry bodies can play a leadership and convening role – as can PRWeek.

As Martin concluded on Wednesday: ""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."

I am open to suggestions of all types and look forward to continuing the conversation with a view to providing just some of that convening and leadership. Please let me know what you think in the comments below or by emailing me.

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