Professional ethics and long-term engagement are the keys to weathering the ‘fake news’ storm.
The value of ethical practice and dedicating face-to-face time in maintaining and developing relationships have been highlighted as key components for PR practitioners amidst a landscape of increasing ‘internet of Me’ personal bubbles and the proliferation of ‘fake news’ on a global scale.
It came as PR professionals and representatives of media, academia, ‘digital democracy’ and local public services convened at Bristol City Hall for a debate called ‘Is Fake News Undermining Democracy?’ on Thursday 12 October 2017. The event was part of both the CIPR Ethics Festival and Local Democracy Week. It was organised by the CIPR South West and CIPR Local Public Services groups.
The debate looked at the current issue of fake news (and false accusations of it by those who are criticised in the media), with contributors agreeing that whilst the concept is not new, the scale and influence of both fake news and biased or inaccurate reporting was a growing cause for concern.
Charting a course from 1957’s infamous Panorama ‘spaghetti tree’ story through to the alleged foreign intervention in both the US election and last year’s Brexit referendum – one panellist highlighting that tens of thousands of stories and posts supporting a ‘leave’ position could be tracked to Russian sources and aligned to ‘9am-5pm, Moscow time’ – panellists agreed that democratic institutions’ best investment of time was in long-term genuine engagement with their stakeholders and citizens.
‘Bias or inaccuracy is a long-standing issue in the UK media landscape’
– the meeting discussed
Noting that bias or inaccuracy is a long-standing trope in the UK media landscape; with one speaker describing the ‘infrastructure of hate’ developed in the UK tabloid press for decades; tactics of openness, providing evidence and dedicated face-to-face time were discussed as potentially positive ways for PR and journalism to work together in tackling a common issue. To do this of course requires professional maturity, as it cannot mean that the mainstream media stops scrutinising or challenging democratic institutions. But with many journalists now taking part in ‘air-conditioned journalism’ whereby there is no time to even leave the office, finding time to engage, check sources and cultivate relationships was seen as key to countering the risk of mainstream media lapsing in to inaccurate, click-bait reporting influenced (either consciously or subconsciously) by the successful style of fake news headlines.
Whilst no conclusive answers could be given for whether the current trend would continue to surge or whether the pendulum would swing back the other way, panellists agreed that practising PR to higher ethical and professional standards would present organisations with the opportunity to build trust with their publics.
Democracy, it was argued, is multi-layered and has weathered many storms, with fake news being just another. The challenges of a dis-engaged audience, a declining media and people’s basic desire to believe what they want to believe are real and serious, but with innovation in direct communications, long-term engagement and practising what we preach around transparency, openness and ethics, the panellists saw plenty of opportunity for PR to exert a positive influence in strengthening democracy.
Attendees considered the challenges of a dis-engaged audience
and a declining media
The ability to better target communications, invest the necessary time and exert influence within their own organisations will be familiar challenges for many PR professionals working in democratic organisations, but have arguably never been more vital in building and retaining public trust.
Please note: the event was held under Chatham House Rules and comments are therefore unattributed.
The event was hosted by Bristol City Council and chaired by Sarah Pinch MCIPR, Chart. PR.
Reporting by Tim Borrett MCIPR
Tim is a member of the CIPR LPS committee and an advocate for CPD. More about Tim’s work and the LPS contributors.
CIPR Ethics Festival 2017
The CIPR has published a new interactive podcast – as part of Ethics Festival – to promote ethical conduct and help public relations professionals tackle ethical dilemmas.
The podcast features three challenging, ethical scenarios.
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> CIPR publishes interactive ethics podcast (Oct 2017)
“In many cases in ethical situations there is no right or wrong answer.
We hope this podcast will act as a stimulus for ethical conduct and help practitioners arrive at appropriate ethical decisions.”
Eva Maclaine FCIPR, Vice-Chair of the CIPR Professional Practices Committee
The podcast is worth 5 CPD points and contributes to the compulsory ethics module of the CIPR’s Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme. The Ethics Festival runs from 1 to 31 October 2017.