Their proliferation has as much to do with social media and a 24-hour news cycle as it does an increasingly distrustful voter, public affairs experts tell PRWeek.
Campaign organizers are recognizing that many fact-checkers are more credible than their own campaigns, which is why they've become part of the discourse in TV ads, debates, and media interviews, says Bill Black, co-chair of Fleishman-Hillard's global public affairs practice.
“What the campaigns are doing is cherry-picking the fact checks that back up their point of view and are from credible sources, whether it's to defend their side or criticize the other” he says. “They build that into their communications program as another proof point.”
In marketing, consumers have long been distrustful of corporations, which is why fact checks are institutionalized at government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and even at media entities such as Consumer Reports, notes Lane Bailey, CEO at public affairs firm Advocom Group.
He explains that consumers now also want sources to keep political candidates in check.
“People are so busy, they feel as if they don't have time to dig deeper into Mitt Romney's public policy decisions or something President Barack Obama said,” explains Bailey. “Voters have essentially contracted out the search for truth.”
Some outlets now have sections of their websites devoted to helping consumers find the truth in politics, such as The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog and the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact.com. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania manages FactCheck.org as a nonpartisan, nonprofit project.
The practice has grown to the point where some fact-checkers even scrutinize their contemporaries. The Washington Post, for example, recently called out the Associated Press for its “very kind” fact check of comments Obama made in the second presidential debate. Black says fact-checking has proliferated to the point that “it almost has become background noise.”
Yet that clamor is clearly disruptive to some campaign strategists. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said in a panel organized by ABC News in August, “We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Taken out of context, Michael Gehrke, VP of Benenson Strategy Group, says Newhouse's poor choice of words made it sound as if he was saying Team Romney has no interest in the hard facts.
“But I kind of understand what he meant,” says Gehrke, a former White House director of research for President Bill Clinton. “A political campaign has typically done its own research about an issue and has had its experts look at it and reach a conclusion. Yet a lot of times, fact checks are done by reporters who are not experts in the subject matter.”
Journalists may fact-check against the wrong data or different sources and statements, or simply reach other conclusions based on the facts, says Gehrke. Candidates also sometimes take rhetorical license with the facts to make a larger point that is true, he adds.
“A candidate isn't going to change his ads or position just because some yahoo at a newspaper says he doesn't agree with the conclusion,” says Gehrke.
While some pundits wonder if the facts even matter because of growing voter cynicism, Christina Reynolds, MD at the Glover Park Group and a former campaign aide to Obama and former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), says campaign managers must be careful about stretching the truth.
“It is easier to say Romney lied than to say FactCheck.Org got it wrong,” says Reynolds. “It is tough; it means the onus is on the campaigns to get it right the first time and be ready with the facts and background information.”
Consumer-facing brands will begin to embrace that strategy for product campaigns and other initiatives, predicts Gehrke.
“Companies need to protect their brands and reinforce credibility, so I think they'll start packaging content and facts that can be given to a reporter in a format that is verifiable and with documentation,” he says. “That is nothing new in the political world, since policy is often based on studies and other data, but it hasn't always been the case with other kinds of PR. It's getting to the point where it needs to be.”