Everyday ethics: who’s responsible for fake news?

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

There’s more to professional ethics than simple right-wrong strictures: questions of ethics – unlike questions of morality – are highly contingent, as Quentin Langley argues in his book on business ethics.

And that’s why I’m going to question the practice of April Fool’s Day stunts. They may be good for publicity, but are they ethical?

April Fool’s Day stunts may be good for publicity, but are they ethical?

You could argue they contribute to public entertainment, and that no one is harmed. They’re still lapped up by the tabloid press and play well in a world of social media memes. It’s good to have a sense of humour, to have light moments in between all the grim news.

Yet they’re proof positive that public relations people are purveyors of fake news. It’s a charge that’s hard to shake off.

It stems from the profession’s undeniable roots in propaganda and from the tools and even the language we use. News releases frequently talk of launches even when no ships or rockets were involved; they’re written as fake news.

This charge of fakery was well made in The Cluetrain Manifesto, published online in 1999.

‘Everyone – including many PR people – senses that something is deeply phony about the profession. And it’s not hard to see what it is. Take the standard computer industry press release. With few exceptions, it describes an ‘announcement’ that was not made, for a product that was not available, quoting people who never said anything, for distribution to a list of people who mostly consider it trash.’

‘Dishonesty in PR is pro forma. A press release is written as a plainly fake news story, with headline, dateline, quotes and all the dramatic tension of a phone number. The idea, of course, is to make the story easy for editors to ‘insert’ in their publications.’

You’re probably off the hook as this was written a quarter of a century ago. But I was responsible for many of those computer industry press releases in the 1990s and the charge stings.

Going back even earlier, another US author Daniel Boorstin wrote about what he described as pseudo-events – news conferences, usually in a political context, staged solely to dominate the day’s headlines.

Public relations people have long been charged with creating fake events and fake news. It’s in our history. It’s in our DNA.

But hasn’t the world changed from the time of Daniel Boorstin, dominated as it was by a few major TV channels, or from the time of the Cluetrain authors, with many significant print publications?

The media landscape has indeed changed – but in ways that make fake news more pervasive and even more pernicious. In brief, we’ve changed from a news environment mediated by journalists to one mediated by algorithms.

We’ve changed from a news environment mediated by journalists to one mediated by algorithms

In the old world of media relations, public relations people could outsource the ethical decision-making to editors. If an editor deemed a story worthy of publication, it then became true. All of the awkward questions would be asked of them, not us.

This process reached its nadir in the notorious Sun headline ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ from 1986. Max Clifford could duck questions (no hamsters were harmed in the making of this fake story) because Kelvin MacKenzie had agreed to publish the story in full knowledge of its unreliable source. And, yes, that it raised a smile, that it was entertaining, was used in defence of this story.

(In passing, the late Max Clifford was not a member of a public relations professional body, but was proud to keep up his membership of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ).

Now, with fewer publications, with less journalistic and editorial oversight of stories before they reach the public domain, who is going to provide a fake news filter?

April Fool’s stunts may indeed be harmless. They may even do some good. But since they work by blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s fake and since they clearly have a promotional purpose and thus an identifiable source, they’re one easy win if we’re to be serious about breaking the link between public relations and fake news.

Yet how to gain publicity in a world mediated not by publications and journalists but by social media algorithms?

The only easy answer is to court controversy, to take sides in the culture wars, to welcome the inevitable backlash, to say ‘bring on the fight’. Publicity’s gain will be at the expense of truth and a civilised public sphere. So is it worth it?

Faking it is easy. We have AI tools to generate news and commentary and fake images. We have graphic design tools that can mock up credible newsletters (much more so than my crude illustration for this article). If faking it is easy, being a trusted and authoritative source is harder. It’s a choice.

If algorithms feel like part of the problem, then technology could yet provide the answer. If the problem is with verifying the truth and engendering trust, then a trusted technology like blockchain could be part of the solution.

So, the news release from a verifiable source gets shared and commented on in digital media as is intended, but is always traceable back to the source. Facts are thus verifiable. Alternative facts and fake news could be shown to be just that as they lack the stamp of authenticity.

As the authors of news, we should strive to be recognised as authentic. It means public relations shedding its cloak of invisiblility (that has historically been so fundamental to the way it has functioned in the past century) and instead operating in public, and with the public interest in mind. Now, that’s ethical.

It means public relations shedding its cloak of invisiblility and operating in public – and with the public interest in mind.

Nor should humour be outlawed: it has its place, especially in local and national contexts. Greggs and perhaps more surprisingly Doncaster Council are both celebrated for their creative content and light tone of voice on social media. It’s authentic to their brands and not to be confused with fake news.

So here’s a whole article on ethics that doesn’t cite philosophical principles but rather focuses on the small, everyday decisions we take as practitioners.

For a fuller discussion of professional ethics, including some discussion of principles and philosophical schools, I’d refer you to our briefing.