In one of the most thought-provoking public conversations I’ve been a part of in recent years, the Public Relations Society of America’s Detroit Chapter invited me, along with Crain’s Detroit Business Publisher/Editor Ron Fournier and Finn Partners’ Taylar Koblyas, to sit on a panel last week, in front of a packed room on the campus of Wayne State University, entitled “The Role Of The PR Practitioner In The Era Of Fake News.”
We all agree that hoaxes have always been around, that provable facts haven’t always guided public opinion (see the flat Earth controversy of 1492) and that what makes today different is the speed and omnipresence of what looks like news in the palms of our hands. It’s true that news has trust issues today, which can hinder PR and its relationship with news.
In the midst of this, PR faces a looming crisis of credibility. We do not exist if not for our relationships, grounded in trust, with journalists and the audiences we work to reach. Right now, though, our actions threaten those relationships more than ever.
How can journalists trust us when, more often than ever, we won’t even talk to them? We encourage email “interviews” and push paper (in the form of statements) rather than people (human-to-human contact). We can’t build trust when we flood their inboxes with pitches and releases that we know would never be news in the current environment, rationalized by thinking “we’re casting a wide net” or so we can show clients and bosses “impressive” media lists, just to cover our rear ends.
How can the public trust us when all we say to our most important audiences is that the company is “Excite to leverage assets” or other corporate mumbo jumbo, written for our clients and bosses and not for our audiences? We need to revisit the concept of writing for the individual who approves our copy, rather than writing for the audience who is, more than ever, depending on the company to tell them what’s going on.
And then there’s this story – sent to me after the panel discussion. How can we be trusted to work with or provide information to anyone when those from our ranks bill a public school system $4.5 million over just three years for work? Any kind of work? The days of “charge the biggest number you can get away with until you’re fired” need to be over in order for the rest of us to be able to work with clients on the “need to have” services that will fulfill their most important objectives and provide the most value.
All of us in PR want the news business to be successful and credible in the eyes of our audiences. In order for that to happen, we have to be a part of the solution. But, on a day to day basis, we are too often a part of the problem.