2016 is gradually drawing to a close, bookended by an announcement from Oxford Dictionaries that the word of the year is the appropriately bleak 'post-truth'. Chosen to represent the 'ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year', post-truth marks the depressing transition from 'the good old days' of 2015, when the word of the year was the 'face laughing with tears' emoji.
While the term has mainly been used in relation to political events, post-truth is likely to impact both the PR and marketing industries.
“People in this country have had enough of experts”
Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief', the post-truth era is all about political spin. Facts are out and fiction is in.
As a result, the post-truth era looks to threaten any form of narrative control, PR or political, thanks to the emergence of 'fake news'. Spread predominantly over social media, fake news websites rely on the traffic from sites such as Facebook and Twitter to spread hoaxes and disinformation, usually with a political motive.
Fake news is especially dangerous to brands, as social media users can cite a range of unverified news sources as fact in opposition to a company's key messages or values.
But, no-one believes fake news, right?
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Buzzfeed recently reported that on Facebook fake news stories actually outperformed news from verified outlets such as The New York Times in the run-up to the US election. When you consider that around 62% of users get news from social media, the problem posed by fake news is significant. Many media organisations have suggested that the proliferation of fake news websites directly affected the outcome of the US election.
But it's not just political. Fake news can be just as damaging to businesses. In the last few months, household names Pepsi and New Balance have both suffered reputational damage as a result of fake news outlets spreading misinformation that has gone viral on social media.
Taking back control
Firstly, PRs should take the threat of fake news very seriously. Rather than laughing off and ignoring what you may feel is a blatantly obvious untruth about a client, it is better to respond to the story directly. If post-truth 2016 has taught us anything, it's that fiction can often triumph over fact.
Rather than rely on non-apologies (another word of 2016) to address misinformation, a response must come in the form of an honest statement that conveys key messages and company values.
Last but not least, it is vital to respond swiftly to any incidence of fake news. The very nature of social media means that misinformation can spread quickly beyond control, and the longer users must wait for a response, the greater the threat of reputational damage.
It is up to sites such as Twitter, Reddit and Facebook to verify trusted sources and stamp out fake news outlets. In the meantime, PR practitioners must be on their guard when fake news stories emerge to threaten a client's reputation.