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Alex Hesketh
Alex Hesketh
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Big Talk March 2017 – Top journalists on ‘fake news’, the rise of digital and what it all means for PR

By Kate Fallis


Four top journalists came along to the most recent Shout! Communications ‘Big Talk’ on March 14 to share their take on so-called ‘fake news’ and the digital age we live in. I’m talking about Richard Martin, Executive Producer at Al Jazeera English, Mary Hockaday, Controller at BBC World Service English, Jon Laurence, Digital News Editor for Channel 4 News and Sandy MacIntyre, Vice President of Global Video News at Associated Press. As a former journalist, I was just as eager to hear their opinions as our guests, so let’s break it down and figure out what it all means for public relations.

Fake news is not news!

Firstly, I have to stress how unimpressed all the speakers seemed to be with the term ‘fake news’. In fact, I think Mary Hockaday summed it up quite well when she said it’s ‘toxic’ and not news at all, so let’s stop calling it that! I’m not talking about Donald Trump style ‘fake news’, but actual articles that have been created deliberately to misinform the public and spread a false story. Despite each speaker making it out to be a bit of a dirty subject, it was unavoidable and they couldn’t help but have their say on it.

“We don’t need to panic. Fake news is ultimately not news.” – Mary Hockaday

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More people are, perhaps unknowingly, trusting strangers online than ever before with what they post and share on social media. What used to be called lying is now ‘mis-speaking’, but we can’t be blinded by that and continue to let people get away with it. It’s our job to cut through this and broadcast the truth.

“There is still a huge market for good, honest storytelling, but sometimes journalists forget to do their jobs.” – Richard Martin

It was interesting to hear about the strong emphasis on fact checking in broadcast news that many may not be aware of. In fact, they have whole teams working on it, constantly number-crunching and working to find the truth behind the figures we hear in the headlines. This is where we come into it from a PR point of view in terms of using lots of statistics and reiterates how important it is to get these figures right.  If you don’t, journalists will notice and question it!

“We’re doing more and more features and analysis. Checking our own numbers is as important as checking everyone else’s.” – Mary Hockaday

Nowadays, there are specific fact-checking articles, and news organisations are finding more people prefer to read those bits, rather than sifting through the longer articles. There was also an emphasis on freedom within newsrooms and an underlying theme that bosses need to trust journalists to find their own reliable sources. This is where PR comes into it again and shows how we can form strong relationships with journalists that more often than not end up being beneficial to both parties.

“Digital media is here, I’m over it, but I’m yet to find a keyboard with a ‘fact or fiction’ button.” – Sandy MacIntyre.

How the digital age has changed the way we consume news

While we’re all aware we live in a very digitalised age, we may not necessarily be up to speed on how we can use this to our advantage.  All news organisations and brands are now accessible in everyone’s pockets and there’s a world of opportunity out there. It’s not necessarily about changing all aspects of communication – but we do need to work harder through the noise to produce quality.

For news organisations, there’s more focus than ever on social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat – and that’s just the beginning! It’s all about tailoring content for each platform to reach as many people as possible. You simply cannot treat them all as one.

“Digital media is not homogenous. Each platform needs its own strategy and style.” – Jon Laurence

Noticing a lot more subtitled videos online? There’s a reason for that. Subtitles are an easy way to reach new audiences – mobile users who may not necessarily want the sound on when watching a video. If you can watch a video with subtitles it gives you more choice to watch whenever you like, rather than having to wait until you’re in a quiet place.    Another thing to note about digital is that really serious news can do well online and Channel 4 News is the proof of this  – it’s not just about cat videos anymore! Distinctive, quality material will always be shared, in particular things that makes people think ‘that could be me’. Professionally told, human interest stories resonate well above all else.

What does this mean for PR?

So how can we work with journalists to provide them with the true, honest and impartial information they want? Well essentially, nothing has changed. Our PR values must remain the same as always and we should strive to be ethical in everything we do. The connection between journalists and PR is very important and the relationships you make may be crucial one day. You may not know it when you first meet someone, journalist or otherwise, but more often than not that networking chat or call you had will come in very handy.

Another thing to note is numbers and statistics used constantly in PR must absolutely be as reliable as possible. After all, with the huge teams of fact checkers inside each news organisation, they’re bound to catch you out if you try to make a story into something it’s not.

As PR we “should be injecting the facts into the current news cycle on behalf of those we represent” – Sandy MacIntyre.

To view the talks in full, head to our YouTube page here:

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