As a storytelling device in fiction, the unreliable narrator makes for memorable characters – whether you’re puzzling out the political maneuverings of Hamlet or reading between the lines of Forrest Gump’s facile innocence. But when unreliable narrators dominate the world of non-fiction – as we’ve seen with the rise of fake news – your job as a public relations professional gets harder. After all, would you want to make decisions about your PR strategy based on the ramblings of Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the tall tales of Edward Bloom in Big Fish?
Not likely; yet these days the lines between fact and fiction are being blurred, and not just because of satirical ‘news’ publishers like The Onion and The Daily Mash. Publishers with agendas – on all sides of the political spectrum – push out stories that speak to their fan bases. Conspiracy theorists – who in the past only had a voice in the netherworld of obscure online forums – now deliver their rants in podcasts and YouTube videos. Readers seek out stories that reinforce their own views, becoming trapped in a self-reinforcing filter bubble.
What’s more, fake news spreads like wildfire, thanks to social media users that reward outrageous stories with a viral sharing frenzy – especially when the person using Twitter is, for example, also currently ensconced in a high public office. Even reputable news organizations have found themselves caught up in the fake news frenzy – reporting on a story before proper vetting to meet the unrelenting deadlines of a round-the-clock news cycle.
The result? Trust in the media is on the decline, with a recent GlobeScan survey finding that 43 per cent of UK citizens feel that media reports news inaccurately and 64 per cent feel media reports tell only one side of a story. Those attitudes hurt the public relations profession too. What can you do to help keep your public relations efforts on track in a post-truth world? Here are a few tips.
1. Embrace ‘always on’ media monitoring. Managing your company’s or client’s reputation requires constant vigilance in the post-truth world. It’s not easy, given the volume of content produced every day by print and web news outlets, broadcast and social media. Use a media aggregation tool that pulls content from various media channels to gain a more comprehensive perspective of what’s being said and what needs to be managed.
2. Do your due diligence. Simple steps can help you determine whether a story is authentic, misleading, or an outright lie. Check the web URL to authenticate the source; it’s common for fake news sites to hijack a trusted, well-recognised media outlet’s name using a .co or .info address. Often, it won’t take more than a click-through to the site to verify it is a legitimate news organisation or a ‘wannabe’ that features a Gmail address on its contact page. Look for additional trusted sources that corroborate the information. If the story can’t be independently substantiated, it demands a closer look.
3. Look beyond the clickbait headlines. Competition for audience attention in an overcrowded media landscape often leads to hyperbolic headlines. If a headline sounds like a carnival barker’s call, you need to dig deeper. A media monitoring tool that allows you to look for terms beyond those in the headline can help you filter out the noise to uncover real substance.
4. Use media analytics to see which way the wind is blowing. Fake news can take on a life of its own. Measuring share of voice, charting mentions by source or creating theme word clouds on topics of interest helps you stay alert to emerging trends or reputational risks that will benefit from proactive PR.
5. React responsibly. PR has always been about finding the opportune moment to join conversations – in good times and bad. When done right, a timely response can boost your brand, shut down an angry customer or deliver the reassurances needed by anxious shareholders or consumers. Whether you use humor or humility in your PR response, however, make sure that your voice is authentic – or risk being called out as "fake media" yourself.
Want a sure-fire way to separate fact from fiction in the 24/7 news cycle? Start your free trial of LexisNexis Newsdesk today and get immediate access to unrivalled premium content and licensed news.