By Patricia Zylberman, Senior PR Consultant, Sherlock Communications.
The recent Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo proved a welcome distraction to the myriad pandemic and political problems prevalent here in Brazil. They also prompted me to wistfully reminisce about the last Games and how different everything seemed when Rio 2016 was in the spotlight.
Back then, working in the media, I always felt there was largely a sense of pride among Brazilians. Sure, the Games — like the Fifa World Cup two years earlier — had gone over budget and been swamped with corruption allegations, but the country maintained its international reputation as a popular and free-spirited land of football and fun, carnival and Copacabana.
Little did we know what was coming. The Covid-19 pandemic changed all that, yet the seeds had been germinating for some time. The presidential elections in 2018 divided a nation and political discourse has since seeped into every sector and every conversation. Even our famous canary yellow football shirt has become politicised. Now, rarely a day goes by when the international press fails to write scathingly about Brazil. Less carnival, more corruption; less beaches, more Bolsonaro.
Yet the elections also gave birth to a worrying trend in Brazil; one that, like the coronavirus, has reached every corner of the country. Denialism, disinformation, fake news, lies — call it what you like, it has spread through social networks and messaging platforms with ease. The Covid health crisis simply ramped it up as people were forced to stay indoors, where they watched more TV, read more online, and carelessly shared more posts and content.
As part of an ebook entitled Media Consumption Latam and published in 2020 by my agency Sherlock Communications, we found that when it comes to trust in Brazilian media, only television is considered more reliable than the internet. Meanwhile, Facebook and WhatsApp were identified as the two most used social platforms for news consumption, with more than half of all Brazilian respondents using them both. Interestingly, 61% also said they don’t trust news shared by family members — more than any other country in the region.
In many senses, the rise of fake news in Brazil was inevitable given the precedent set in the United States. What I never imagined, however, is how it would change our PR industry and why our role would become so important in the fight against this secondary virus. No longer is it our job simply to inform, but now we must also actively educate. In an era when science is being questioned and disputed, we need to constantly convince people of the importance of listening to doctors and scientists.
It is distressing to see people openly doubting facts and questioning medical experts, and it is tiring to have to fight against this tide of misinformation and cynicism. For example, working during the pandemic with the Mayo Clinic, each time we sought to generate coverage for the client, local reporters came back to us seeking clarifications – often repeatedly – regarding our sources and information. The result was we had to start reading and annotating The Lancet in order to persuade journalists our client was credible.
In one sense, the reporters’ search for truth must be applauded, but when you are questioning experts at one of the world’s leading medical research practices, as well as distrusting your Government, newspapers, and even your own family, where does it stop?
It is a common feeling among myself and my colleagues that our job has become increasingly more focused on protecting our clients’ brand against fake news. We spend roughly a third of our time fact-checking not only our clients’ stories, but also their competitors’, potential partners, and media.
After all, unequivocally demonstrating your brand’s credibility and trustworthiness is the best PR you can get.
And, like all athletes competing in Tokyo these past months, doing our utmost should always be the goal.