Disinformation: It’s Time to “Take It Personally”

The term “fake news” may have sounded like a punchline a few years ago, but it has become a more serious threat with the recent emergence of individuals or groups who deliberately spread disinformation. If you believe the average person can distinguish between an ethical communicator and someone who maliciously spreads false information, new research shows they can’t tell the difference.

In June, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) released the Disinformation in Society Issue Brief: Business-Related Sources and their Role in the Spread of Disinformation, which found that nearly two-thirds of survey respondents felt that public relations professionals, advertisers and marketers are responsible for spreading disinformation. Twenty-six percent of Americans surveyed had “some” trust in public relations professionals and 20% for marketers and advertisers.

The study also found that an individual’s political affiliation did not affect their perception of public relations professionals and other business-related sources of information. This may not come as a surprise for some, but political affiliation did play a role in how much the respondents trust journalists. Interestingly, 45% of the respondents indicated they trust journalists, which is significantly more than public relations professionals or marketers.

If disinformation is a major problem in our society and more than half of the population believes professional communicators are to blame, then this is an indication that our profession is in the early stages of a major shift – one that could have an even greater impact on our profession than social media had a decade ago.

PRSA recognizes the impact on our profession. They responded to IPR’s report, encouraging members to not only help the public understand how to discern truth, but also speak out against egregious examples of disinformation. For 2020 and the 20th year of the contemporary PR Code of Ethics, PRSA chose the campaign slogan, “PR Ethics: Take It Personally.” We’re in a different era. If you had said to me a few of years ago that I would need to use my platform as a news source to speak out against fake news, I would have thought you were joking.

The traditional method of countering misleading or false information with the truth may not be enough to convince our stakeholders that we should be trusted. The public is getting information from multiple sources at the same time on different platforms; it’s easy to see how they might confuse a legitimate information source with a fake news operation. They don’t know who to trust.

What does it mean when PRSA says we should speak out? From my perspective, this looks like calling out individuals or groups who knowingly spread rumors or disinformation, actively seeking out malicious or fraudulent “news” sources and working with authorities to shut them down, and supporting public relations colleagues in other organizations who are actively working to combat disinformation.

Communicators who follow PRSA’s Code of Ethics are committed to truth and transparency. They have the skills and ability to lead the charge to speak out against disinformation or expose those who might call themselves communicators or news sources, but deliberately deceive the public. They are #NotOurPR.

What does speaking out against disinformation look like to you? Are you willing to take a stand against those who intentionally spread false information, knowing that they will likely retaliate against you or your organization? It sounds risky, but the reputation of our profession is at stake. It’s time we “Take It Personally.”

Dawn Eischen, APR, is PRSA Richmond’s Ethics Officer. She has been a public relations professional for 20 years, serving as a strategic communications advisor and spokesperson for state government and nonprofit organizations. She is currently a public relations manager at the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.