In the weeks following the election, social media and news outlets exploded with conversations about fake news. This phenomenon, which some said influenced the outcome of the election, presents falsehoods as if they were true news.
In recent weeks, a similar concept has emerged. Within the first few days of the Trump administration, the phrase “alternative facts” emerged and raised questions concerning the reporting of accurate information. Since news and media coverage play a pivotal role in the PR industry, alternative facts have important implications for PR professionals and their job functions.
In his first press conference as Press Secretary, Sean Spicer delivered a statement about the media’s reporting on the size of crowds that attended the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20. According to Spicer, the media deliberately reported incorrect, misleading information about the number in attendance. Spicer claimed that photos were framed to distort the crowd’s population and security measures delayed some attendees from entering the Mall. Additionally, Spicer cited Metro rider numbers as evidence that Trump’s inaugural crowd surpassed the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration. These three pieces of evidence were ultimately proved incorrect.
Following Spicer’s statement, senior advisor Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and described Spicer’s statement as “alternative facts,” rather than calling them, as host Chuck Todd described them, “falsehoods.” This term quickly entered mainstream conversations and has sparked concerns about delivering accurate information and maintaining truthfulness in media coverage.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued a statement following Conway’s interview. The statement, written by 2017 Chair of the Society Jane Dvorak, reads, “Truth is the foundation of all effective communications. By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees…Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals…Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.”
PRSA’s statement sets an important precedent for reporting in an era of so-called alternative facts. The statement reaffirms the importance of truthful facts, especially within communication industries.
“Alternative facts” and PR
As implied by the PRSA’s statement, the concept of alternative facts has a significant influence on the PR industry. Perpetuating falsehoods in the press undermines the basis of truthful reporting, which hinders the ability to perform key PR activities.
Many PR professionals praise the value of the PESO model when drafting PR programs. The earned media aspect of PESO involves gaining media coverage for clients. This portion of the PESO model presents perhaps the most important type of media exposure.
Although companies can pay to advertise or promote their own content, positive earned media indicates that an independent news outlet feels a company or person has presented information that is newsworthy. The coverage is, as the name states, earned. Appearances in media builds authority and trust with the public, an important quality to have in the competitive business environment. According to inPowered and Nielsen, 85 percent of consumers look for credible reviews or articles prior to making a purchase, so positive earned media coverage allows brands to stand out to potential customers.
Without honest, truthful information, however, the value of earned media would diminish. Reporting inaccurate information risks the reputation of trusted media outlets.
As concepts like fake news and alternative truths proliferate, PR professionals and media personnel must remain devoted to communicating verifiable truths. The integrity of the media and its relationship with public relations depends on this commitment to broadcasting supported facts.