Get a reality check on fake news

The media is awash with stories mentioning fake news this week.

What is it? How does it work, what do you need to know and how does it impact internal communication?

Fake news is false information which has been crafted and shared, usually for a purpose. I’ve seen it described as active misinformation. Its purpose may be to persuade you to believe something about a person or influence you to behave in a certain way.

It’s not new. Or a shock.

Tip: Fake news is different to unverified news.

As I wrote in the IC Kollectif’s article on What IC needs in 2017, fake news is something IC pros need to be aware of:

“With fake news on the rise, our role is more important than ever to encourage organisations to create a new code of ethics for employees. The IC profession needs to rise to these challenges, pool resources and commit to the highest levels of transparency” – Rachel Miller 

In light of recent reporting and this week’s Trump press conference, the phrase is taking on a life of its own.

The BBC said today fake news poses a threat to British politics.

I’ve seen it being used when news is unverified rather than fake. This highlights the confusion – and risks – of using the latest phrase on the block.

The rise of peer-to-peer communication has been well documented and I champion it.

But what happens when fake news is shared socially in ways you can’t see it (for example via dark social)?

What impact does this have on internal communication?

These are topics I think about and have talked through with my clients and Masterclass attendees.

Let’s take a few moments to bust some jargon before I move on. You can find more via my glossary page.

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs.

Fake news is false information which has been crafted and shared, usually for a purpose. Perhaps to persuade you to believe something about a person or influence you to behave in a certain way.

Fake news websites (also referred to as hoax news) deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation — using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.

Unverified news hasn’t been checked to say whether it’s true or false. It means sources haven’t been checked (verified) yet.

Single source of truth?

As part my consultancy business I conduct communication audits.

One question I ask clients when analysing their methods, strategy and channels is about truth.

App_AllthingsICI ask Comms Directors: “Do you have a single source of truth? Where do employees know they can go to get reliable and honest answers and information? If they heard rumours about the company externally, what’s your internal source of truth? Who can they ask?”

For some organisations it’s their leaders. Clients tell me: “Our employees know they can ask their managers and senior leaders.”

Or perhaps: “The intranet/Yammer/email (delete as appropriate!) – employees know they can ask here and get an answer.”

I then ask employees the same question.

You won’t be surprised to hear the answer often varies between where comms teams think their single source of truth is, and where employees say it is, or that it doesn’t exist.

Why does this matter?

It matters because for corporate communication to be effective it has to be accurate, credible, reliable and trusted. Plus it needs to reflect the reality of the organisation it’s shared in, resonate with employees and provide opportunities for them to join and shape the conversation.

There’s a lot in there.

So what do we need to do?

You need to role model the behaviour you wish to see.

As professional communicators we have a responsibility to work ethically.

As a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC), I take the ethical principles I signed up to seriously.

In short. You need to tell the truth. Reinforce the truth and promote it.

I hate the word spin, it makes my teeth ache. There’s a perception that internal communication is spin. Less so today than in years gone by, but it still exists.

You could argue all communication is subject to interpretation. Therefore increasing the chance of untruth being spread as truth via exaggeration or misinterpretation of intention/message.

That’s a whole other blog post!

What can you do?
If your organisation is under the spotlight, could you have an internal version of a backgrounder? (Short document or page online giving overview of a topic or situation).

Do you do this? If your organisation finds itself embroiled in a fake news situation, this sort of clarity could work well to cut through the noise and falseness to bust some myths.

An alternative could be a LIVE broadcast via Workplace, yamjam, webinar or Q&A document.

Suzanne PeckToday I asked Institute of Internal Communication President Suzanne Peck (pictured) what she thinks about fake news.

She told me: “Fake news strikes a foundation stone in internal communications – that of truth.

“The ‘best’ fake news stories (usually featuring  Trump, Clinton, the Pope, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber!) confusingly have that element of “truthiness” to them which makes them almost believable.

So what can IC pros do?

Suzanne says: “I don’t think that we should do anything different from what we should always do as curious communicators:

be sceptical of things that just don’t sound right; only share content from sources that you know are good and true; and care about evidence and accuracy.

Gloria Lombardi, Founder and publisher of MARGINALIA, the future of work magazine (pictured), told Gloriame: “There is a famous saying, which is worth recalling at a time when “fake news” is such a topical subject – A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes.

“Trust lies at the core of all good communication whether internal or external”

“In this era, professional communicators have even more of a responsibility to ensure our content is beyond reproach.

“Sober fact checking, painstaking attention to detail, and a pedantic obsession with accuracy have always been and always will be the ultimate hallmarks of effective communication.”

New Reality Check team at the BBC

REalitycheckAccording to the Guardian newspaper, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is setting up a team to debunk fake news.

The BBC has had Reality Check in place for a while – see @BBCRealityCheck on Twitter. It was created in March 2015 and has its own website.

The Guardian article states: “Amid growing concern among politicians and news organisations about the impact of false information online, news chief James Harding told staff on Thursday that the BBC would be “weighing in on the battle over lies, distortions and exaggerations”.

(Internal comms being reported externally? Ahem).

“The plans will see the corporation’s Reality Check series become permanent, backed by a dedicated team targeting false stories or facts being shared widely on social media.

The BBC can’t edit the internet, but we won’t stand aside either – James Harding

Harding said. “We will fact check the most popular outliers on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.”

Further reading: Reality Check’s most popular stories of 2016.

When did fake news start?
WaddsWriting on his personal blog, Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington @wadds (pictured) says: “You can trace the history of fake news in the public relations business from Edward Bernays in the 1900s to Max Clifford in the 1980s. More recently from the Iraq War dodgy dossier in the early noughties, to campaigning during last year’s UK Referendum and US Election.

“The term has become a catch-all phrase to cover a range of content from stories that are completely made up, to blatant propaganda.

“Public relations has an important role to play in helping organisations counter fake news” – Stephen Waddington 

Stephen has created a draft public relations framework to tackle fake news. It’s worth a read – check it out via his blog.

What does this mean for internal comms?

Stephen’s framework highlights the role employees can play. He says: “Everyone in an organisation has a role in helping counter a fake news attack. Employees are frequently an organisation’s most powerful reputational asset. Share content far and wide and encourage employees to use their own networks.”

What do I think?

If your 2017 comms plans and strategies don’t take fake news into account, you’re on the back foot.

I challenge you to think through fake news surrounding your organisation.

If you’re thinking about employer branding this year, it’s smart to be aware not only of your internal communication but fake information circulating as truth.

For example, what do your Glassdoor reviews say? Is it an accurate view of your organisation or are they full of untruths? If you don’t know, make it your job to.

It’s not about hunting down and correcting and controlling everything, it’s about being mindful of the speed communication happens and how fiction can become fact if left unchecked.

I had a conversation with a client only today where we talked about this. I told her: “If companies are too quiet for too long in situations like this, employees will decide the truth for themselves. Lack of information from the top may lead them to think axes are being sharpened to cut jobs. When actually, the organisation may just not be ready to say anything right now. We agreed having an organisation say “we’re not ready to say everything at the moment, but will let you know as soon as we can” can be an effective approach to take.”

I Tweeted today @AllthingsIC that I was writing this article to see if anyone from my network wanted to comment:

Further reading: 

Don’t believe everything you read: but believe this. We need to do something about fake news – by World Economic Forum.



What about fake news via social media?

In December Facebook rolled out a new tool to tackle false stories saying: “We believe providing more context can help people decide for themselves what to trust and what to share. We’ve started a program to work with third-party fact checking organisations that are signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles.”

What’s your view on the fake news issue?

You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

I Tweeted @AllthingsIC, here’s what people in my network have to say about fake news:

Thank you for stopping by,


Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 13 January 2017.

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