11 December 2019 Truth, lies and consequence: is fake news destroying trust in brands?

Icon’s Head of Public Relations, Matt Thomas, reflects on a recent session held at the 2019 PRIA National Conference.

We are at a time when the world is experiencing a collision between facts and ‘alternative facts’. It is evident in almost every facet of society, from politics to science, academia to culture, and without doubt in the media and communications. 

At the recent 2019 PRIA National Conference, Icon’s Managing Director Joanne Painter chaired a panel discussion that addressed this salient social issue, as well as the existential challenge facing the PR industry today: how does the rise of fake news affect public trust in brands and institutions?

Featuring a mix of experts in media and communications, the 40-minute sessions explored truth and trust under the influence of digital disruption. 

As Head of PR for Icon, and working closely with our clients in the issues and reputation space, I found the session provided interesting food for thought.

Consider this: according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has made over 12,000 false or misleading statements since becoming US president. In the same time, he remains immensely popular with his own political base. No amount of raw data appears capable of changing their minds.

Symptomatic of this new dynamic, facts and expert knowledge are frequently dismissed as ‘fake news’ or drowned out in a deluge of ‘alternative facts’. 

Technology and digital disruption 
Digital technology, particularly social media, is reshaping our relationship with media and our approach to truth. Enabled by the internet, individuals now have greater access than ever before to almost any information they desire and social media, in particular, has made it easier than ever for people to freely share, comment and respond to this information.

This has created a landscape in which interpretations and opinion abound. While once the traditional media held a virtual monopoly on news and commentary, they are increasingly indistinguishable from other sources of content delivered to us through our social media ‘news’ feeds.

Fake news 
In a post-trump world, we experience the global consequences of fake news on a daily basis. In an environment where it is nearly impossible for individuals to fact-check the vast swathes of information we receive on a daily basis, determining what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fake’ news is more and more overwhelming.

The Internet, long held up as a great ‘democratiser’, has created a scenario which is causing us to increasingly question the foundational institutions on which modern democracies are built. 

While there has been much commentary around the advantages that the Internet provides for citizen journalism, the breakdown in traditional modes has not just meant that the opportunity to share opinions has been democratised, but so too have the responsibilities. Whereas once the media did the fact checking for us, the responsibility for assessing the information we receive and determining truth now falls to us. 

Trust in brands and institutions today 
As audiences become increasingly focussed on identifying true from fake, the onus falls to professional communicators and the brands and institutions we represent to work harder to earn trust. We live in an age where bloggers, influencers and citizen journalists wield as much influence in shaping public opinion and world views as trained professionals. When it comes to maintaining or enhancing trust, organisations today need to stay attuned to all channels and keep authentic through consistent and clear messaging.

Technology and digital disruption should not take the whole blame for the collapse in public trust, but for those of use working in public relations, we must stay attuned to the impact that this mistrust has on our clients and our work. 

Now more than ever, when it comes to building trust, the old principles for PR should continuously serve as beacons: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. But for the 21st century? I’d add another – authenticity.

Icon Agency was a key sponsor of the 2019 PRIA National Conference and Joanne Painter was the Chair of the Organising Committee. The Australian Marketing Institute and the Victorian Bar are also within Icon Agency’s pro bono portfolio.

Authored by Matt Thomas, Head of PR at Icon Agency, this article first appeared on the PRIA website.