Fake news headlines fooled American adults about 75% of the time in 2016, according to a survey by BuzzFeed News. Google and Facebook were faced with acknowledging what was termed a fake news epidemic and sought to enhance controls to mitigate future occurrences. The Brexit referendum vote in the U.K. and the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election contributed to a spike in the use of the adjective post-truth in news articles, leading to Oxford Dictionaries’ decision to select it as international word of the year. The focus on sharing fake news and a desire to believe what is said, even if it is untrue, have changed our society in ways we have yet to understand fully, but one thing is certain: PR pros and communicators need to take notice.
The existence of fake news is troubling because everyone has access to a plethora of information and the ability to share it with and circulate it among hundreds of thousands of people. All that’s needed to do this is literally a mouse click. Whether the information is true or not, those who agree with the story will continue to share it. Before long, the alleged news has circulated around the net, and there is little that we can do to control how that information will spread. As the pyramid of influence continues to erode, stakeholders, the general public, activists and employees have more power to drive agendas than at any other time.
Operating in this environment requires communicators to devise ways to listen to and understand audiences.
1. Polling and Social Listening: The presidential election and the Brexit vote proved that traditional methods of surveying people are not as effective as we once thought. As professionals who an
alyze public opinion and help shape and determine policies, PR practitioners need to pay greater attention to what is being said and spread on social media. They also must explore more sophisticated predictive analytic models to assess what is driving the underlying beliefs and behaviors energizing the adoption of fake stories.
2. Ethos and Pathos: Understanding behavior will be critical to engaging audiences. The only way to connect with our audiences is to deliver authentic messages that resonate with them. Perhaps we need to embrace a new set of buzzwords that comprise our vernacular in 2017: ethos, which stems from the Greek word for “character,” and the word “ethic,” which is derived from ethos. And don’t forget about pathos, the Greek word underscoring the ability to form an emotional connection whereby an audience would experience feelings that the writer wanted it to feel.
3. Corporate and Value-Based Storytelling: As the public finds its voice, expresses opinions and builds communities of like-minded people, PR pros will need to engage with these influencers in ways that are relevant to their communities.
Communicators will need to tell stories that align business objectives and connect with their audiences’ passions. For example, if you are committed to the environment and your stakeholders care about climate change and ecology, stories about sustainability will resonate.
Over time, value-based storytelling will help reinforce corporate character. These stories will define your values and demonstrate your commitment. While this will not eliminate people writing fake news stories, it does create cognitive dissonance, the result of which is often that a person will take the time to verify if what is being said is true or not. By building a library of stories about your organization, you will begin to build relationships and trust with your stakeholders.
Sharing stories through social media presents enormous opportunities for communicators to expand their reach. Brands that commit to telling more positive stories about themselves in social media will benefit from this increased readership. Those who can master the art of integrating shared values with corporate storytelling will be able to advance the narrative and the organization faster and with greater effect than those who rely on the mainstream media and third-party influencers to do it for them.
4. Social Responsibility: Trust and transparency are critical elements to building corporate reputation. As the ability to share information has been dispersed, PR pros will need to double down on creating genuine, credible and meaningful content that demonstrates they are socially responsible. Being in tune with the wants, needs and beliefs of key stakeholders will be the most effective way to engage audiences.
If we learn nothing else from the events of 2016, we know that public opinion polling does not effectively measure the stirrings of a society. It falls short when it comes to detecting the emotions that eventually will evolve into an enormous force of change. We must learn to identify these emotions and find ways to tell our organization’s story with our audiences’ truth and our corporation’s values. This alignment will go a long way in helping us to win the public’s trust.
Note: This content appeared originally in PR News Pro, January, 9, 2017. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info