We got an email this week from a respected college professor putting together a PR conference. The question was simple, “Do you know of anybody willing to talk about being bitten by fake news?”
The answer, from our end, was also simple. We don’t. That is because there is no “epidemic of fake news” in the day-to-day world of PR.
To explain, let us please agree on the definition of “fake news.” What we are talking about in this post is the disguising of fictional content, using familiar people’s names, on websites that look like news sights but are created just to spread this fiction. It what, before the ease of sharing websites via social media, were called “hoaxes” or “urban legends.” We used to see this kind of stuff in the grocery store checkout lines in tabloids (the Weekly World News often featured front page “stories” about politicians and aliens) or, from our friends (who could talk to us even before Facebook), like when those of us of a certain age heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with some sort of carbonated beverage.
What we are not talking about here is news coverage from a bona fide, commercially viable, familiarly-named outlet that does not paint the sitting President of the United States in a favorable light, in his opinion. We are also not talking about news coverage that includes errors in reporting.
Now that we have that straight, you can begin to understand the answer we gave the professor. The “fake news epidemic” has been limited to national politics. That has been the focal point of news consumption since last year and that is what is driving clicks online. That is where there is money to be made and attention to be had by the fraudsters online. This is not a phenomenon that is seriously impacting day-to-day business in the rest of the country. That is not to suggest that some sort of fabricated item that looks like news couldn’t show up online about the place where you work or a company with which you do business. The potential is there but the reality is not.
This is similar to the “supermarket tabloid” heyday. There was much more of a chance of a “fake” story about Carol Burnett getting drunk and getting into a verbal altercation with Henry Kissinger in The National Enquirer (that happened, resulting in a lawsuit) than anything about anyone not a celebrity. The reason is simple – celebrities (and diet tips) have always moved paper in grocery store lines, the way stories about the President and politics drive clicks now.
In every community in the country at certainly at the national level, both the news and PR businesses are facing some serious issues and challenges. But, for the vast majority of us, today, this just is not one of them.