The disinfodemic: PR has the vaccine!

Guest Column: Varghese M. Thomas, Vice President – Corporate Communication, TVS Motor Company Limited, lays out the PR game plan to neutralize fake news pandemic

e4m by Varghese M. Thomas
Updated: Apr 14, 2021 11:15 AM
varghese m thomas

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is here to save humankind, don’t you wish there could be a vaccine for the epidemic of fake news too? It does seem that if a deadly virus doesn’t bring down humanity, the rise of fake news, rumours, disinformation, truth decay, conspiracy theories, and satire-being-mistaken-for-fact surely will.

We have all witnessed the rise of fake news—from reports of 5G cell phone towers being set on fire because fake news claimed it caused COVID-19 to sales of brands like Godrej Agrovet and Venky’s being affected by over 50 percent on the back of social media rumours claiming that chicken helped spread the coronavirus. In 2016, a false quote attributed to Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, over the US elections led to a boycott of the brand. We have all been influenced in the recent past by a spate of WhatsApp and Tik Tok videos expounding the merits of hot water with lemon juice to improve immunity against COVID-19 with no basis in scientific fact. The direct and indirect impact of fake news is varied and worrisome: From chipping away business bottom lines to eroding brand equity and from causing mental anxiety to affecting health in disastrous ways.

Three key factors are fueling the rise of fake news and disinformation: 1) The rise of social and electronic media, 2) The ease-of-use of social applications that make sharing messages easy and 3) the ability of the publisher of fake news to hide behind a veil of anonymity.

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer for 2021 quantifies this trend. It notes, “The global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (35 percent) and owned media (41 percent) the least trusted; traditional media (53 percent) saw the largest drop in trust at eight points globally.” Other studies have shown that 43 percent of millennials believe that mass media is having a negative impact on the world, while another 27 percent said they have zero trust in media. These are the new set of consumers, employees and stakeholders that the PR industry must address using fresh strategies and tactical plans.

On their part, consumers are learning to fight fake news (because it hurts them) by following a diversity of news sources and raising their skepticism levels for everything they read and watch. This makes the job of public relations so much more difficult.

For the serious practitioner of public relations, these breakdowns have thrown up a challenge, perhaps the toughest in recent memory of the profession. There is a growing demand from businesses, educational institutions, public personalities such as movie stars and sportspersons, political organizations and governments for expertise to manage the consequences of fake news and disinformation. Their key asks: restore, manage, strengthen and build back trust with stakeholders.

What can be done to neutralize the disinfodemic, as some have called it? Guy Berger, Director for Policies and Strategies, Communication and Information at UNESCO, has an exciting and relevant answer: Improve the supply of truthful information and ensure it meets demand. His advice applies equally to governments, businesses and organizations of every shape, size and bias. He wants them to be more transparent, proactively disclose more data in line with Right to Information laws and policies and improve access to information from official sources for credibility.

Aside from Berger’s advice, there are five golden rules that PR professionals need to follow:

  1. Combat fake news. Do not ignore fake news. Do not delay countering it. Viral media can quickly amplify the fake news and cause irreparable harm. Immediately counter fake news with well-developed and evidence-based statements. Combine this, when necessary, with simple storytelling around the truth, crafted with relevance for each target group, to ensure the messages stay memorable.
  2. Educate. Recognize there is an information crisis. Fill the gap by providing verified and verifiable facts from reliable and independent sources. Increase the supply of facts and present it across channels, helping the largest number of people understand it with ease. Stay on the side of truth, presenting it in ways that help your audience use facts to effectively filter rumour, sensationalism, disinformation/ alternative facts, deception and misrepresentation.
  3. Check facts. Practice healthy caution. Don’t take any information at face value. Before using data and information in communication, ensure that all facts have been cross checked, authenticated and credited – not only will this help build better stories but will result in improving trust. If necessary, get the facts reviewed independently before using them.
  4. Be authentic. Participate in conversations instead of sending out one-way messages that do not allow dialogue. Be prepared to answer uncomfortable questions. Be honest and authentic – it will help build trust. 5. Use credible faces. People trust people. Communicate through real people. Keep them visible—so the audience knows who owns the data/ information and who is taking responsibility for the communication. Today, PR can use text, images, audio and video to disseminate information. Use the media, showcase real people and real events to make the message credible. Society is overwhelmed by the deluge of information. The news environment is saturated. People have limited time—and ability—to sift through information to decide what to believe in. In such an environment, establishing a credible reputation and building trust is not just the duty of every business. It is the path to long-term customer, employee and citizen loyalty.

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