How the PR Industry Can Help Battle Disinformation and Restore Trust
I envision a future where PR escalates its purpose beyond the business of shaping public opinion and campaign creation for our clients to applying even more thought and care for the audiences that consume those messages – our friends, families and neighbors. I've spent 15 years in this industry, but it wasn't until the life-altering events of the past year that I stopped to really consider what we do in a deeper way. Perhaps, these thoughts will resonate with you.
Edward Bernays is considered “the father of public relations” and authored the well-known book Propaganda.1 He is most well-known for his compelling campaigns during the 1920s, where – rather than create demand for a product – he created demand through the clever shifting of public perception with the use of events, contests, and other innovative initiatives that dramatically shifted the cultural landscape. A bio of Bernays on the PR Museum website states, “Bernays emphasized the “coincidence of public and private interest, of the supremacy of propaganda of the deed over the propaganda of the work, of the desirability of a large corporation assuming constructive leadership in the community.”2
Does the word propaganda in relation to our business make you cringe? Yeah, me too. Yet the definition of the word juxtaposes both a positive and negative outcome, which hinges on the intent of the person/organization conducting an action.
The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
The negative connotation of the word propaganda reigns supreme, which is an excellent reminder of the damage that can be done when unethical or misinformed people and companies are given a platform to amplify their message. Most of us in PR believe that the comms/marketing teams we work with have done their due diligence and are well-intentioned. We also assume broadcast, print, and online publications are carefully vetting what they pick up. What happens when/if these checks do not occur? What can the PR pro do to help restore trust and reduce erroneous information during this seismic industry shift?
While considering this question, it may first be helpful to view through a personal lens. Having the “fake news” conversation with friends I engage with usually results in finger-pointing at each of our perceived ideological nemeses, dividing along the typical political lines. Everyone uniformly blames the TV channels they would never watch or the sites that they “wouldn't be caught dead” reading – but that is hardly a fair or accurate assessment of reality in 2021.
Proliferation of news from a few core channels to cable networks, independent journalists, social media channels, and a near-infinite array of digital publications means coverage is fast and furious, and careful organizational fact-checking has gone the way of dial-up internet; it takes too long and sounds really annoying to bosses looking for more content with less staff. PR has the power to change this.
We have a seat at the table when the most influential organizations in the world look for ways to engage their customers. Our abilities transcend creative strategies, media pitching, and copywriting, and we have far more to contribute than just demographic data and the coordination of multichannel distributions. If you are with me so far, the next inevitable question is: what can we do to battle misinformation and questionable narratives we may encounter?
Do your homework. Crafting a compelling pitch starts with understanding the societal landscape and breaking news in the region of your audience. It is your job to understand the conversations and headlines your clients are seeking to inject themselves into. Events that are occupying the national/global news cycle warrant another level of due diligence – historical context. If you do not have a firm grasp on this, not only could your campaign fall flat, but it could also cause real harm.
We need not look far during a pandemic for a real-world example of this potential to cause harm. Perhaps you are working on a COVID-19 vaccine campaign that hopes to calm fears and boost vaccination uptake of black Americans. Despite what social media posts would have you believe, not everyone resistant to the “shot” are anti-vaxxers. There is a nuanced history of marginalized groups being irreparably harmed by medical treatments they were told would help them.3 Therefore, it is imperative to check any biases at the door when strategizing about sensitive topics and using increased critical analysis of any claims being made.
Narrative with no supporting evidence may as well be a work of fiction. It amazes me that anyone in our industry questions the prevalence of misinformation on established channels, but I hear that trope often. We have been programmed since childhood to respect and believe authority figures. This unquestioning belief has bled over into the honorary “titles and tiaras” of celebrities and spokespeople.4 There's a lot at stake. This means it is crucial to create campaigns backed up with credible sources and data, preferably from neutral third parties. We live in a time where people accept editorialization as fact without questioning it. This lends itself to acceptance of any narrative if it comes from a source that aligns with someone's core beliefs. Many organizations capitalize on this phenomenon, but it's a short-term gain with long-term pain. We are paying the piper now.
Diversity of thought and experience matters. While you are lamenting the dark echo chambers of the internet the “uninformed” get their information from, know that you are likely in a self-constructed cavern of repetitive talking points as well. Can you be a peak performer in PR without consuming viewpoints from every angle? I would argue there will be some considerable gaps in your knowledge and limited inspiration for new story angles if you don't. Facts and sound analysis don't need protection from dissenting views. In fact, opposing viewpoints can help you spot holes in your own reasoning.
Question everything. Earlier I stated that humans have a proclivity for accepting information from authority figures at face value. We must resist the urge to do that in our public relations roles. Read your client's briefs outside of the fast-paced to-do list of your work day. Imagine the campaign's target audience and how they might receive the information and what possible outcomes of the story could be if it told “as-is.” Do your own research when able, and help your client tighten up any areas of concern.
While certainly not a complete list of action items, this short primer is a great way to be a part of the cure for a persistent issue plaguing our country. When we hold up a mirror to our own role rather than consoling ourselves with the flaws of others, we can lead by example and create change momentum. During an organization's inevitable pursuit of more – more clicks, more views, more clout – we must be proportionate in action, showing more care, more thought, and more respect for the power we wield with our words.
ABOUT THE EXPERT: Melissa Elsner
Melissa Elsner leads product development and marketing efforts at MultiVu. A generalist by nature, her experience includes front end design, operations management, workflow optimization, go-to-market strategy and product development. During 2020, her team released a new reporting platform for clients, an internal business intelligence tool, and a business continuity site that has helped organizations pivot and transform their comms efforts for the virtual world.
Melissa is a diehard Giants fan and a proud mom of two teen boys. She enjoys arguing, a good conspiracy theory, and German riesling – not necessarily in that order.
MultiVu is the strategic team at Cision dedicated to the creation and targeted distribution of creative content. Our award-winning diverse pool of industry-leading talent are extremely passionate about partnering with our clients, bringing best-in-class stories and concepts to life, and getting those stories to the audiences who want to experience them most. To start crafting your story, visit us online at www.multivu.com.