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Building trust with the media is a challenge in the wake of recent events – Greg Gordon, guest columnist.

The era of fake news has some serious ramifications for the PR industry, chief among them how to remain credible and distinct from purveyors of damaging misinformation. Recent events have left many people with the impression that PR and fake news are one and the same thing. This is, of course, unfair and untrue. But a perception has been created that PR companies are not to be trusted.

The relationship between the media and the PR industry, once famously described by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as a “tense engagement”, remains uneasy. Fake news is a relatively recent arrival in the lexicon of media terms but the phenomenon is not really new. The world has long had to deal with hoaxes, propaganda, yellow news, ‘alternative facts’ and other types of disinformation put out by those bent on manipulating or deceiving the public.

In its modern guise, the term fake news can be used to describe everything from websites designed to generate clicks, to actual news sites which publish items which aren’t true, or simply express opinions you don’t agree with.

The biggest problem with fake news, apart from its often insidious content or message, is that it is now easier for legitimate and established news organisations to fall prey to it. The news cycle is faster than ever, and the pressure on news rooms, together with diminishing resources, means that some items don’t get the scrutiny they should before being published or broadcast.

As advertising revenues have declined, news organisations have sought to contain costs. Too often this has meant doing away with critical quality controls and posts like those of subs and revise-editors.

The juniorisation of newsrooms, lack of grey hair and the absence of institutional knowledge have all led to a decline in standards. Filters, processes and gatekeeping – the tools traditionally used to keep news as factual and as accurate as possible – have been minimised.

In addition, the workload on journalists has increased significantly, and young journos are now expected to be multi-skilled and multi-taskers. They have to juggle video, audio, stills, words, and social media interactions, all while on assignment.

Inevitably this has resulted in mistakes, inaccuracies and a general lack of fact-checking; creating an environment in which fake news has been able to pass itself off as news at even some of the oldest and most respected news titles.

The fake news problem has become so serious, it is now being seen by the media as a threat to the future of journalism. The result is that many organisations are now becoming more vigilant about the content they will consider, and while this is a generally a positive development, it will present a greater challenge for PR practitioners.

The industry will likely have to work harder in the era of fake news to ensure submissions are as credible, newsworthy and as trustworthy as possible in order to find an audience.

True PR is not fake news. While it is no secret that PR is by its nature opportunistic and designed to further the image and aims of its clients, ethical PR does not do so in an inherently dishonest way. The intention should never be to deceive; but to promote – a certain line of thinking or service, activity or company. Its aim should be to promote good media relations on behalf of its clients; not to lie. Lies, in any event, tend to be found out; with disastrous consequences for the credibility of the client, and for the PR company itself.

Credible PR companies make sure they can back up any claims their clients make as these assertions are likely to be tested and verified by a competent and professional news provider. Ethical PR is about building long-term trust between organisations and the media. Fake news erodes trust. In essence and approach, the two are diametrically opposed.

While resource-starved media organisations have recently had less time to vet PR content and may have been letting submissions through unaltered, this will probably change.

Serious news organisations are starting to take a renewed interest in gate-keeping. Worried about unwittingly publishing fake news, many will subject PR material to increased scrutiny and be more discriminating about what they publish or broadcast. More regular checks and balances are likely to be the order of the day, and while this may make the job of the PR organisation harder, as long as the content is legitimate and newsworthy, it will find a valid place in the editorial mix.

PR companies that are able to balance the interests of their clients, the media and their audiences – through the production of credible, honest, interesting and informative content – will be successful.

*Greg Gordon is one of South Africa’s most experienced business, technology and lifestyle journalists who has worked for National Geographic, City Press, Business Day newspaper, the Financial Mail, London Financial Times, Mail & Guardian and The Sunday Times and Business Times.

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