Fake news, disinformation and their consequences: challenges for public relations

This article is the first in a series on the challenges of disinformation faced by public relations and the role the profession should play.

Who would argue with the suggestion that, in public relations, we have an interest in the proper workings of the media – traditional and social – and processes of communication in society?

When I started out in public relations, in Canada, members of the national Canadian Public Relations Society worked to a code of ethics which required them not to “engage in any practice which has the purpose of corrupting the integrity of channels of public communication.”

There are similar commitments in codes from the International Public Relations Association (the Code of Venice) and the Public Relations Society of America expects its members “to preserve the integrity of the process of communication.”

So far, so worthy, but these requirements provide practical guidance, for example in media relations, don’t bother the news media with material that is other than newsworthy. To do otherwise is to try to fill channels of communication with material that might be better placed as advertising (or not placed at all!)

They also give us a strong interest in the uses of channels of public communication, in keeping them open, fit for purpose and uncorrupted by false or misleading information.

Here’s where present day challenges arise, and they are serious – of concern at the highest levels of government and throughout wider society.

Aggressive use of disinformation has become a weapon in social conflict, in political activity and in hybrid warfare. It is used to confuse, to surface underlying uncertainties, resentments and hostilities, and to raise doubts about the reliability of any information.

With sometimes drastic consequences, certain groups, such as terrorist organisations or less than friendly countries, have learnt faster how to take advantage of new possibilities for communication.

And while we have admired political actors for the skills with which they have exploited new media possibilities, we now have cause for concern in the way extreme political views can be put forward and gain credibility, where to criticize them can lead to accusations of “fake news.”  In a short two years, this can now be used to question the value of any item appearing in the news media.

We’re already late to the battle against disinformation.  In international affairs and the hidden conflicts of hybrid warfare, the US State Department reacted late – in 2016 – with the setting up of a Global Engagement Centre (https://www.state.gov/r/gec/index.htm) to counter disinformation.

In the UK, the same task is being pursued with greater urgency in diplomatic, intelligence and security circles (https://bit.ly/2pByXy7).

Is there a role for public relations in facing up to the challenges of “fake news,” disinformation and abuse of channels of communication?

We should restate the commitments made in our codes of ethics and conduct to the integrity of processes of communication.  These should be revisited in light of the possibilities for communication offered by social media (for example, what might it mean to ensure the integrity of Twitter: should it be used to mislead, especially when questions of national interest are involved or – so long as long-standing legal obligations are observed – should anything go?)

We have responsibilities in the area of content preparation – not to knowingly allow false or misleading information to be disseminated.  We should call out others who fail to hold to the same standard, joining journalists in their attempts to reality check the claims of politicians, as an example.

There is an often discussed need to increase media literacy, to aid in understanding the techniques used to collect and present information through the media.  We could contribute to efforts to educate children for media literacy.

For us, our professional interests are involved in combating fake news and disinformation. As a matter of urgency, we should speak up for them and in so doing perform the public service which is one hallmark of a profession.

If you are interested in submitting an article on the challenges of disinformation faced by public relationsplease contact jong@cipr.co.uk.

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