7 Ways PR People Can Support Journalism

There are now five PR people for every working journalist. This may seem like a good thing for the PR business as companies increasingly tell their stories through social media and branded content. But as stark evidence that sources of objective news are shrinking, it’s not a healthy sign for either industry.

What may be more alarming are indications that journalism is under siege. On any given day the president is deriding “fake news” reports, calling CNN “dishonest,” or attacking the “failing” @nytimes. And for their part, media do sometimes fail; just look at ABC’s recent suspension of Brian Ross over inaccuracies in a sensitive political story.

But the news about news isn’t all bad. Although a partisan divide sharpens how we view the press, overall trust in journalism has actually increased in the past year, according to the just-released Poynter Institute study. A large majority of respondents (69 percent) believe that the media “tend to favor one side,” yet the same percentage believe that news organizations “keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

Many blame Mr. Trump for the loss of confidence in the MSM, but the erosion probably started decades ago, with the rise of conservative radio. As right-of-center radio host Charlie Sykes puts it, “we’ve done such a good job of discrediting (the mainstream media), that there’s almost no place to go to be able to fact check.” But what’s interesting is how the mainstream press has weathered the attacks against it. Attacks by the president and his allies have sparked a new appreciation for the media by those who used to take it for granted, and that’s a good thing.

So, what’s a responsible PR person – or informed citizen – to do? The recent “credibility crisis” in the mainstream press, as well as various reactions to media criticism, offer some suggestions.

Step up support for “real” news outlets

Time to up those subscriptions, PR pros. Beyond our own consumption, now is a great time to support the types of journalism that are under the most pressure — local news reporting and investigative journalism. If you have enough subscriptions, donate. Jay Rosen tweeted this NewsMatch list of news and journalism organizations for last week’s #givingTuesday; these groups probably deserve as much consideration as your favorite charity, and all donations through December 31 will be matched.

Think twice about ad-blocking

I know, digital ads can be annoying and irrelevant. But they’re getting better, and they are what pays for journalism. Do we really want to have it both ways when we know the price of a weakened news media industry?

Don’t tweet or post without reading it

Headlines can be deceiving. Before we share that infuriating tweet about Congress or the latest “tips” post on content marketing, maybe give it a look, because it may just be a sign-up page for someone’s seminar, or paywalled, or even a hoax. It’s not always what we think.

Be scrupulous about attribution

It’s easy to get sloppy, or worse, in the rush to meet deadlines and client expectations. But no one can afford to be lazy or hasty about attributing quotes properly or noting proper sources. And journalist Anna Clark has the right idea when she advises bloggers and social sharers to attribute to the original source, not a secondary story that aggregates or summarizes. Yes, it may take an extra step to find the link, but it’s worth it. Aggregated news is not original journalism.

Get out of your media bubble

This is a tough one. But I agree with Josh Stearns of The Democracy Fund when he advises a “diverse media diet with a good mix of indie and alternative news, local, national and international coverage, niche and countervailing points of view.” The news-source tunnel vision that we’ve adopted is not contributing to better journalism.

Shut down phony stories

Fake stories and rumors can bubble up from a misperception or mistake that was never corrected, leading to further distortion. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote or share, and to hold both clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking, even down to the tiniest details.

Follow the money

That study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance – who funded it? As PR pros, many of us have deep experience promoting health news, often funded by large companies, and usually supporting the organization’s brand or bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with this. But we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding and sourcing. All news consumers should note who’s offering the information, who benefits, and most of all, who’s paying.

The Biggest PR Disasters Of 2016

2016 had plenty of the kind of the kinds of news-making crises that public relations people dread. It was a year of surprises, setbacks, and scandals. Here’s our list for the top stories that damaged brand reputations, wrecked careers, and kept media and PRs working overtime.

Samsung’s product recall gets heated

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 showed every sign of being the blockbuster it needed to challenge Apple. But shortly after its launch, the Note 7 had to be recalled after reports that the devices overheated and even caught fire. Samsung’s swift decision to pull the product at first looked smart and proactive, but things didn’t cool off. Replacement devices had to be recalled after they, too, showed defects. Worse, Samsung bungled the management of the product recalls by failing to coordinate with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. and its customer communication was slow and inconsistent. Research shows that Samsung still commands a loyal following, so the damage is likely to be temporary. The communications lessons, on the other hand, will be covered in crisis management classes for many years.

Lochte loses luster

For a 12-time medal winner, U.S. swim team star Ryan Lochte was a loser when it came to his behavior at the 2016 Olympics. His drunken vandalism of a Rio gas station might have been overlooked if he had ‘fessed up to the bad behavior, but Lochte chose to concoct a nutty, self-aggrandizing story about being robbed by gun-brandishing bandits, which particularly outraged the image-conscious Brazilians. Then he fled the country, leaving his teammates to answer to authorities. After he was busted for lying, Lochte admitted the truth and formally apologized for “not being more careful and candid.” As of December, his reputation was recovering, thanks to a crowd-pleasing turn on “Dancing With The Stars” and the announcement that he and fiancée are expecting a baby next year.

Theranos’ falls victim to its own PR

Talk about bad blood. For the once-promising biotech startup, 2016 was the year that things fell apart, following fresh repercussions from revelations that started late last year with an investigative report in The Wall Street Journal that questioned its claims. The fall of Theranos was particularly dramatic because it was in many ways a victim of its own hype. The story of a new blood-testing technology for clinicals that needed only a single drop of blood was irresistible to media, and founder Elizabeth Holmes was a PR dream. But as it turned out, many things about the secretive startup were just too good to be true. Until the Journal‘s John Carreyrou started digging, the press was too dazzled by Holmes’ youth and accomplishments to spot its flaws, and even the company’s Board of Directors, which was packed with boldface names, failed to see trouble. After Carreyrou filed 12 more stories about Theranos in 2016, it became the target of criminal and civil investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The ultimate account of the insider who blew the whistle on the company is riveting – part suspense novel, part Shakespearean tragedy.

Wells Fargo’s phony accounts exposed

After it came to light that millions of fake customer accounts were set up by Wells Fargo staff to pad their sales figures, the bank agreed to pay $185 million to settle claims, and CEO John Stumpf apologized and vowed to do better. But Stumpf at first seemed to blame rank-and-file employees, 5300 of whom were fired over the scandal. He then shifted gears and communicated his own sense of accountability for the situation, telling members of the Senate Banking Committee, “I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business, and I am fully committed to doing everything possible to fix this issue, strengthen our culture, and take the necessary actions to restore our customers’ trust.” That was the right move, but for Stumpf, it was a case of too little, too late. He retired in October, and Wells Fargo is still grappling with the reputation impact.

EpiPen price causes outrage

Move over, Martin Shkreli! Heather Bresch, CEO of pharmaceutical company Mylan, became the poster child for industry greed in 2016. After public outrage over Mylan’s 400% price increases for its flagship product EpiPen, Congress launched an investigation, and it wasn’t satisfied with Bresch’s answers. Mylan swiftly responded to the crisis with favorable pricing for those without adequate health insurance, and a plan to launch a generic version of EpiPen, but the backlash continues. Mylan’s stock has dropped from $54 at the beginning of the year to $36.60.

Vulgar comments on a bus nearly derail the Trump train

Beware the hot mike. The lewd boasts that Donald Trump made 11 years ago during a taping of “Access Hollywood” were probably the biggest reputation story of 2016, and that’s saying something. When Trump bragged about kissing and grabbing women without their consent, it sparked a national reaction and for a few days at least, threatened to derail some key endorsements. But the Trump campaign insisted it was “locker room talk” and responded with help from a team of surrogates and a (perfunctory and defensive) video apology by Trump. In a second wave of crisis response likely devised by Steve Bannon, it counterattacked by dredging up Bill Clinton’s sexual history. We all know how the story ended.

NC business goes down the drain with “Bathroom Bill”

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2 – legislation to regulate use of public facilities by transgender individuals, he unleashed a torrent of controversy – and ultimately, his own electoral defeat by one of the slimmest margins in history. The governor tried to frame the “Bathroom Bill” as protecting individual privacy, but a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and big business, including major technology companies, eventually prevailed against the spirit of the law. HB2 gave rise to serious and prolonged economic boycott of the state by major corporations and sports organizations, flushing away an estimated $600 million in revenue. McCrory’s narrow defeat helped clear a path to the bill’s repeal or modification.

Email hack bedevils Democrats 

The Democratic National Committee grappled with its own surprise leak earlier in the summer of 2016 when private emails became public. The DNC moved quickly to limit the damage; Chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz and other key party officers promptly resigned in the wake of the scandal. But the problems for other Democrats were just beginning. Clinton campaign director John Podesta’s emails were obtained by Russian hackers and released by Wikileaks, and although the material lacked a bombshell, the slow drip of embarrassing material was a repeatedly picked up by the press. It distracted the Clinton team from its message and placed it in an awkward position when questioned about the resulting material. All in all, the hacks were a reminder to all of us that employee behavior needs to adapt to the security risks we all run every day.

Fake news is big news

Fake news made some of the biggest headlines in 2016. The many false stories that went viral leading up to the election fueled concerns that we’re entering a “post-factual” era when trust in legitimate media will only decline. The good news is that some of the smartest technology and journalism minds are working together to offer solutions. First, Google and Facebook announced they won’t support the ad technology for fake news sites, and Facebook has said it’s devising a range of countermeasures to flag false articles. More recently, Upworthy ‘s Eli Pariser and others have started The Truth Project, which is looking at Chrome extensions, fake-news-blocking-apps and even blockchain technology to rid us of the fake news plague.

An earlier version of this post ran on MengBlend.

How Public Relations Can Fight Fake News

Like many in PR, advertising, and journalism, I was relieved when Google and Facebook announced they would ban “fake news” sites from using use their ad services. By attacking the advertising model that supports sites like World News Daily Report and NewsBuzzDaily, they might help slow the viral spread of false, defamatory, and even dangerous stories. The move still won’t stop the patently fake stories in my Facebook stream, but it’s a start.

Fake content has been around as long as the internet, but as a culture, we didn’t take it so seriously until after the 2016 election. But after reports that some fabricated –  and highly inflammatory – stories were more widely shared on Facebook than top legitimate news stories, many are concerned about the power and the prevalence of false news. The culmination (at least I hope it’s the culmination) of the dark consequences of such stories was the recent shooting outside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that has been the subject of scurrilous rumors. Post-factual “news” isn’t just a threat to journalism or democracy – it’s a magnet for the mentally unstable.

I’m as concerned as anyone, but the furor also makes me think about where we draw the line between truth and so-called propaganda – sometimes known as PR. The case of Bell Pottinger, the UK PR firm that created fake insurgent videos as part of a contract with the Pentagon, made me wonder about the PR’s role in truth-telling. At one of my early PR agency jobs, the founder would begin every new business presentation with a story about how he started the business after working in propaganda for the U.S. Army. It was a seamless transition to promoting beauty products and soft drinks in the buoyant post-WWII environment.

Most PR isn’t propaganda, and government work – even disinformation campaigns – presumably serves a higher purpose. Certainly it did back in the days of WWII. But the slope can be a slippery one.

What can an honest PR person do?

Support legitimate media

PR pros do this anyway, of course, but for any of us, now is not the time to let our newspaper subscription lapse, or to cut back on your digital content subscriptions. Real news is hard – harder than ever, in fact, in the digital era – and that work costs money. Think twice before you download that ad blocker; it doesn’t really stop ads from counting and only erodes content quality.

Don’t cut corners

False stories and internet rumors don’t start all at once; they can result from a misperception or inaccuracy that was never corrected, leaving it open to further distortion. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote, and to hold both clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking.

Attribute everything

We shouldn’t get lazy about attribution, even when it’s about widely cited information that’s publicly available. Everything counts.

Move swiftly to correct untruths

Like many PR professionals, we’ve had experience with web-based rumors that threaten a brand’s reputation. It can be tough to fight lies (and that’s what we should call them) without calling undue attention to them. In the case of our client, it was a vicious rumor started by a disgruntled blogger alleging the brand had ties to an illegal organization. We helped the client debunk the lies with the help of third-party groups who specialize in quashing misinformation.

Don’t give fake stories oxygen

Best not to share or link back to fake stories or publications (like the ones mentioned but NOT linked to here) unless it’s for purposes of having them banned by your social media platform of choice.

Go narrow

Storytelling hasn’t been done through mass media channels for a good while, but in the post-factual universe, communicators need to adapt. This post from Robert Wynne makes the point that because consumers are increasingly segregating ourselves by our media and content choices, PRs must reach important audiences not through mass persuasion, but with what he terms Tribal Persuasion and Micro-Persuasion.

Follow the money

That study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance – who funded it? As PR pros, many of us have deep experience promoting health news, often funded by large companies, and usually supporting the organization’s brand or bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with this. But we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding, and consumers of such news should take note of who pays, and who benefits.