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PR’s Role in a World of Fake News and Media Illiteracy

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

By Will Bradley


“Fake news”: the U.S. president tweets about it, the news media warns against it, and you can’t go an entire day in 2019 without hearing about it. And, as research study after research study shows, it is not a problem the public relations industry can shy away from.

For instance, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ North American Communication Monitor, which was released earlier this year and is based on thorough research from 2018, shows an overwhelming 81% of industry professionals are paying attention to fake news. However, it also shows less than one-in-five professionals believe it’s a relevant topic for their work.

Meanwhile, similarly timed research from the Center for Public Relations at USC-Annenberg noted that “64% of public relations professionals surveyed predict that in five years the average consumer will not be able to distinguish between news stories written by journalists (earned media) and promotional content purchased by an organization (paid media).” The kicker? More than half of PR professionals, 59% in fact, don’t believe the average person will care.

There are quite a few factors that are driving the public to misunderstand the media landscape, consume false news or both. These include politicians who throw around terms like “fake news” for their electoral benefit, a fragmented news world with niche audiences and a press corps whose occasional mistakes are under the microscope like never before.

That leaves corporations and private industry a huge gap with which to advocate for increased media literacy and accurate news coverage. Public relations and communications efforts are indispensable in building trust, both within the context of a company and the news coverage of it. By advocating for accuracy, transparency and unbiased reporting, communications professionals have a large opportunity to leave a positive mark on the news and information people are consuming.

As such, the PR industry — its existing and future professionals, especially — should take care to fully understand the “fake news” and media illiteracy epidemics and make their decisions with them in mind.

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31 oct 2019

Will, thank you for keeping attention in our profession focused on this issue, and a threat every bit as real as climate change. Importantly, research like this and the Edelman Trust Barometer make it clear that the public expects business -- not government, or media -- to lead the required corrective actions. Clearly, we're not taking that mandate seriously enough at the moment, as your essay points out. In effect, there is a five-alarm fire burning, but nobody is leaving the building. We can educate, we can be vigilant, we can maintain high standards for the integrity of the information we advance, and we must, with renewed commitment. All necessary, and not sufficient as long as there are weapons of…

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