How communicators are helping to curb fake news during COVID-19

Experts feel communicators come armed with the best mix of skills to assess, assimilate & amplify messages coming from business and function heads to help curb fake news

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Apr 24, 2020 5:18 PM  | 6 min read
Fake News

The COVID-19 pandemic can also be referred to as an “infodemic” with a plethora of information dispersed across media as channels of communication are bombarded with all kinds of information. Desperate times like these drive people to search more and cause them to end up with misinformation. Herein comes the role of communication professionals who are armed with the best of skills to assess, amplify and filter information and help conquer the spread of fake news.

Public Relations and Corporate Communications professionals are playing a pivotal role in mitigating the fake news crisis. According to Nikhil Dey, Vice-Chair at Weber-Shandwick, the intent of the information matters a lot in my opinion. He says, "At one end of the spectrum there is ‘misinformation by mistake’ and at the other, the more evil end is ‘Disinformation by Design’ and between these two extremes there is a lot of grey areas, all together this is called fake news”.

Rightly pointed out by Dey, educating the public with credible information from authentic sources is of paramount importance. It is unquestionable that corporate reputation lies in the hands of the communicators. Agreeing with this, Prashant Shivram Iyer, Senior VP at Adfactors PR, acknowledges the importance of communicators in safeguarding corporate reputation and credible news. He added, “The role of communicators is to anticipate potential risks from various stakeholders and counsel business leaders on navigating the repercussions in such a manner that the impact is diffused.”

On the contrary, Deepshikha Dharmaraj, CEO at Genesis BCW argues that if as a communicator, you have a strong relationship with your target audience, with authentic and transparent communications at its core, fake news is less likely to corrode your reputation.

“A communicator needs to look at fake news from two perspectives—short term and long term. In the short term, the only way to counter fake news is with real news. We have to understand that in the absence of conversation by a brand—or an individual—there will be people trying to fill the gap, often with messages, you don’t have control over. In the long term, they need to build trust,” she added.

Various firms have been at the forefront of fighting this menace in the communication system. Leading the combat is Google. Google has been on its toes when it comes at curbing fake news especially in the times of Corona. From ‘Google News Initiative’ to added feature on Whatsapp to check on the forwards of fake news, Google has been instrumental in the fight against fake news. 

Gaurav Bhaskar, Director, Global Communications & Public Affairs at Google India agrees that no other function understands this better than corporate communication professionals in providing authoritative and locally relevant information which is easily accessible and helpful is the critical need of the hour. He added, ”Brands can play a hugely important role by stepping in to surface the latest and most helpful information from local government and health officials across all their consumers' touchpoints. In these difficult times, people are not just looking for news they are also actively seeking information about how they can navigate and manage the needs of their families. And brands who are stepping up and being helpful in these times will stand to gain the most.”

Mahindra & Mahindra has also been instrumental and extremely active when it comes to fake news. A team of highly responsible corporate communications team vigilantly monitors and scrutinizes all media platforms in real-time to be able to gather and rule out fake news.

Varsha Chainani, Senior Vice President-Group Communications at Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. informed that we evaluate and verify every news through multiple authoritative and informed sources, with subject matter experts or sources, so we know it is authentic.

She further added, "It is imperative for communicators to establish the ownership on every individual to only ‘trust’ authentic information when the world is battling a pandemic – by actually providing information only from credible sources. Maintaining a steady rhythm and pre-defined structure of communication helps in conditioning your internal and external stakeholders to start actively look for facts at the right places and avoid getting swayed by the barrage of information.”

Broadcast media has also been extremely sensitive about the spread of fake news. Viacom18 is one of the examples. With campaigns like #RahoSafeGharPe, it educates viewers, employees and others, in general, to give them a comprehensive understanding of the current situation while urging them to stay home and thus stay safe.

Sonia Huria- Head: Corporate Marketing, Communications and Sustainability at Viacom18, affirmed that as a communication professional and as an organisation, at Viacom18 we have always made it clear that we do not support the spread of such damaging information or their sources. Huria added, “Over the past few weeks since the lockdown, we have constantly used the strength of our network and our presence on social media to create awareness on the current situation, promote best practices like social distancing, regularly washing hands and staying indoors. At the same time, we increased communication with our employees and partners to a great extent to ensure that they are on the same page and aren’t being misled by untrustworthy sources of information.”

Communication on people-related priorities is at the heart of crisis management which is instrumental to any public relations and corporate communications professional. Nitin Mantri- Group CEO at Avian WE and President PRCAI diligently acknowledged that PR firms are demystifying the situation for their employees by maintaining open communication with them. 

According to him, PR professionals are curbing the spread of fake news in their clients’ eco-system by constantly monitoring the news and providing credible information in the form of daily COVID-19 updates. This information is again being used by clients to authentically educate their stakeholders about the evolving situation, thus breaking the cycle of rumours and fear that is becoming as dangerous as the pandemic.

“The PRCAI has also created a separate COVID-19 section on its website with dashboards and resources from verified sources from across the world,” informed Mantri.

The start of a solution in curbing the proliferation of fake news begins with making it about me and taking ownership of this problem. Nikhil Dey agreed to the statement and advised to “Own the problem”. Communicators are influencers with a wider audience in their organizations. He suggested to work fake news scenarios into crisis preparedness exercises and create some “What if” scenarios and be the drop in the ocean by owning the problem to do your bit to fight the good fight.

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