Fake news – what can PR do about it?

Emma Duke – 28 March 2017

There’s an awful lot of news about fake news right now. While Trump accuses ‘liberal’ news outlets of churning it at every press conference, the media and its commentators spend an equal amount of time angst-ing over it.

As the organisers of a new PR networking group in Oxford, we thought this would be a good topic for a bit of a debate. While we may mainly be known for our dreaming spires, Oxford is actually a bit of a PR hub. With the many communicators advising the University and its colleges, combined with some big businesses in the area, luring flacks to the pub has proved popular since we set the group up last year.

Why should we care about fake news?

Fake news holds some scary scenarios for PRs. While we’re not all about to have to deal with a pizza-gate sized emergency, the way in which fake news sites are so well optimised for social media means that a single story mentioning your brand could travel incredibly fast with no opportunity to challenge it.

Is it all our fault?

But hang on a minute…if we consider some of the stories that circulated around the US election to be fake news (arguably: propaganda), surely the case could be made that PR isn’t exactly innocent in this story. Consider the spin orchestrated by governments and their advisors on a daily basis, and we haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory when it comes to accurately reporting our clients’ behaviours.

How do we deal with it?

The importance of ethics in PR really came to the fore in this discussion, together with the role of organisations like the CIPR in providing consequences for unethical behaviour. Heidi Skjeseth (US correspondent, Dagsavisen, and research fellow at the Reuters Institute) made the case for more investment in the media to support quality journalism.

Similarly, the need to hold digital publishers to account was a point that Nicky Smith from Twelve PR made. No matter how much work Facebook does to keep an eye on ‘disputed content’ though, surely it’s inconceivable to think we’ll ever be able to eliminate fake news from the internet – and who gets to decide what news is fake anyway?

Education, education, education

The concern that younger people may be vulnerable to the dangers of misinformation on the internet led to what I felt was the core of the issue: surely our response to fake news should lie in education?

The ability to critically question everything we read and where it has come from has never been more important.

Which brought us back to Oxford – where better to start a conversation about how to help the world question everything?

Something tells me this discussion could go on for a while…

Thanks to Simon Thompson, Heidi Skjeseth, and Nicky Smith for joining such an engaging panel – and crucially, my partner in crime Dan Selinger for hosting it so ably.


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