Over the past decade we have witnessed a revolution in media. And within just the last two years, and especially during the US election, we have seen social media become ascendant as a source for disseminating news.
But that “news” comes without many of the checks and balances of old. “Fake news” – to use Trump’s favourite phrase – is a real phenomenon. And with the rise of fake news comes the erosion of trust: in our media, in political figures, in businesses and non-governmental organisations.
This is the key issue we tackled at a keynote panel in Dubai, titled “Public Relations & The New Trust Equation”, at the In2 Innovation Summit. Organised by the trade title. “The Holmes Report”, it is probably the most prestigious, and certainly the most informative, PR event today, and it is a testament to the strength of the region’s PR industry that it was held in the Middle East for the first time.
As PR practitioners, we sit at the nexus of business, government, media and the public. Essentially, we are in the business of building and protecting our clients’ reputations. For this we rely on a foundation of trust: between client and agency, and between ourselves and the media and the public at large.
PR is not the dark art it is portrayed as by people too deeply attached to its cliches. The demise of Bell Pottinger last year is a testament to that: a tale of a storied PR firm that lost its moral compass and was severely punished for it. And as much by its peers – the agency’s expulsion from industry trade body The Public Relations and Communications Association proved to be its final death knell – as by the public, the business community or the regulators.
PR is a powerful tool, and the Bell Pottinger story demonstrates what happens when those tools are used to misguide the public.
As demonstrated by the firm’s implosion, a loss of trust – and a subsequent breakdown in reputation – can be remarkably swift and extremely traumatic for an organisation. And nothing feeds that breakdown like outright lying, or withholding truth. As our firm’s founder, Harold Burson, so brilliantly put it: “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will and you won’t like the way they do it”.
For public relations to build and maintain its own reputation for integrity, especially in the eyes of a sceptical public, will require a little more than getting rid of a few bad apples. One simple tactic is for all PR practitioners, from freelancers to agency heads to in-house communications experts, to adopt the universal PR Compact proposed late last year by our industry peers.
This compact is based on four simple tenets – insist on accuracy; demand transparency; engage in the free and open exchange of ideas; and require everyone to take universal online ethics training.
I think we can take that further, especially in the Middle East, and put those tenets to practice in a way that demonstrably builds trust, in our media, in our institutions and in our industry itself.
Take digital literacy, for example. Being digitally literate today means being able to understand the context of the content on these devices and be aware of the dos and don’ts of the complex online space.
Through our privileged position, we can ensure clients embrace accuracy and truth in their communications. We can break down the online echo chambers that appear on your personalised news feeds and introduce new points of view.
We can work with the media in ensuring stories are balanced and fair. And, ultimately, we can use our power and our access to educate the public, especially the digital natives, on the warning signs of fake news sources, and steer them to trusted and respected outlets. That would take us some way to shifting the public perception of our industry from the “masters of spin” of old to the guarantors of truth of the future.
The writer is the CEO of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller.