Fake news is all around us, from disinformation related to election security to misinformation about effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. While rapid response is in our nature, as PR professionals, every one of us in this industry has a responsibility to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and communicating with the public – hell, it’s clearly in the PRSA Code of Ethics.

I have to believe that the anger and malice we saw January 6 at Capitol Hill, when rioters and domestic terrorists invaded the U.S. Capitol, was a direct result of the misinformation that continues to poison our nation. Kudos to Twitter and Facebook for taking a stand against the sitting U.S. president and banning him from their platforms due to posts that violated civic integrity. Perhaps this can break through to others with similar opinions and indicate they should reconsider. Social media platforms have a responsibility to maintain ethics and integrity, and PR ethics means that we have the same responsibility when managing organizations’ profiles and recommending tactics.

Don’t Fall Victim to Fake News

Time and time again, we see the public challenged with the quick spread of fake news – which has multiplied many times over with the advancement of social media and connectivity. By slowing down campaign videos, a tactic known as “deepfakes,” people have made president-elect Joe Biden appear as though he’s stumbling over his words and hesitating when faced with challenging questions. This narrative even earned him the nickname “Slow Joe.” What’s important here is that the video was altered by splicing segments of Biden speaking – a move that is clear when viewers take the due diligence to compare the video to the original. The role of a PR person here? Don’t share deepfakes. Check your sources. Don’t just jump on the latest news cycle without being sure you understand all of the nuances. In all cases, maintain the highest standard of ethics.

Take for example Theranos. Many of us have heard the story of Elizabeth Holmes’ fraudulent path to success – the Stanford-dropout started a diagnostics company that claimed it could screen for hundreds of diseases with a finger-prick blood test. Interviews with former colleagues shed light on situations that just didn’t seem right and the lack of proof for anything happening at the company, yet many invested in what they believed was a fast-track to rapid financial success through the evolution and growth of the company. Theranos changed the game in health-tech reporting, and made more reporters warry of covering startups without evidence or efficacy to back their product. For PR people, this was yet another reminder that while our job is to help frame a story in a positive light, spreading false hope of a product that doesn’t yet exist, claiming life-saving solutions that haven’t been proven to work, and flat out lying to the public are surefire ways to discredit yourself, your company and possibly end up in jail.

So, as PR professionals, what must we do to do our part here?

Four Tips for PR Pros Fighting Misinformation

  1. Fact check, then fact check again. As a tendency, people across PR tend to move quick – it’s a fast-paced industry and we often support timely, high-stakes campaigns. Don’t sacrifice deeply understanding a story to try to get a client into a news cycle.
  2. Ask the hard questions. When clients push you to earn positive coverage of a product or a vision that you aren’t sure will live up to its promise, ask for a demo, look for evidence, and find third party validators to back up your story.
  3. Trust your gut. If a news cycle is breaking but something about it seems off, trust your gut and take the time to dive deep into the story. Don’t pitch media offering an expert’s perspective on a breaking story if you may be perpetuating fake news or adding fuel to a fire that you’re not willing to die on.
  4. Words matter. The words we choose as communicators make a key difference in the tone, sentiment and perspective of the ultimate story that is told. Be accurate.

While our roles do include spin, it’s important we adhere to the ethical and moral standards across our industry. What PR professionals do to influence the public and shape narratives can have a lasting effect, and we all need to do our part to ensure that effect is true and positive.

This post was originally published by CommPro on January 13, 2021.


RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government, healthcare and energy markets.