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#CommsWeekNY 2017 Day 5 - Fake News, Emerging Tech and Reputation as Currency

Post by Tom Kirkham, Kite Hill PR International Account Director

Our final discussion of this year’s Communications Week featured an all-star cast of media and communication experts examining the blurring world of earned, owned and paid content and how this played into the fake news sphere. Moderated by Michael Kaminer of Observer, the panel featured Katie Creaser, VP of Affect PR, Siobhan Aalders, Head of Global Communications at Shutterstock, Damaso Reyes, Director of Community Partnerships at the News Literacy Project and Duy Linh Tu, Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Director, Digital Media Program at Columbia School of Journalism.

The discussion was dominated by the question of branded content and its validity, Reyes kicking things off by explaining that, “There was a huge rush towards branded content as it became a quick fix for brands - but few people talked about the impact this type of advertising would have on consumers.” He argued that, “By over-relying on branded content, you’re eroding the ecosystem of news - do this too much and the channel will disappear.”

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While there was agreement that the value of news is being eroded, panelists were divided on the role of branded content, Creaser noting that, “I support good branded content, as well as news literacy. But ultimately, PR cannot thrive if excellent news journalism doesn’t survive.” Linh Tu was critical of the marketing industry being too hands-on in dictating the scope of branded content. “There’s nothing new about sponsoring content; the problem is that the clients/PRs can’t get out of the way, editorially...In the PBS model, there is quality content attached to a quality brand. I genuinely think we can do this in the digital world, but we’re not doing it right now.”

Returning to the main topic at hand, Kaminer argued that the term fake news should be dropped entirely as, “It presents a false comparison. These are hoaxes.” While no one suggested that branded content could be described in these terms, Aalders argued that, “There’s less appetite for authenticity than there used to be… You have to stay true to yourselves, work with trusted sources, vet the stakeholders you engage and work with great people who are on-the-ground.”

Linh Tu picked up on the issue of authenticity and content, explaining that, “The struggle we all have is nuanced. Traditionally there was a wall between PR and journalists. It’s eroded, for good and bad reasons. Without branded content, we don’t pay the bills and can’t produce the news.” He then went on to describe an even more fundamental challenge facing journalists today, highlighting that, “The way we consume news is highly affected by technology. News outlets don’t just worry about direct competitors - they now have to worry about everyone who is creating content. They’re competing within the entire information feed, against so many different categories of information.”

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Reyes reminded the audience of the old adage that, ‘An educated consumer is our best customer’. He cited concern that, “Our educational system has not changed, while access to information has. We’re trying to help young people figure out the difference between news and advertising, opinion and propaganda. If you can’t recognize these differences, you’re not digitally literate… The perpetrators of these hoaxes are filling a space created by a lack of education.”

Along these lines, Reyes advised that, “Part of the PR’s job should be client education. A lot of clients just think journalists are part of their channel and don’t understand the role that journalists play. They need educating about how earned media works.”

Creaser concluded by stating that, “The longstanding media outlets we have loved for years are continuing to produce great journalism. As PR people, we need to be working with journalists who are writing genuine quality content, rather than just Buzzfeed-style news,” a point Reyes enlarged upon when he rounded up the debate with these wise words: “Consumers of misinformation need to be vaccinated - this means being taught what it is, how to stop it, and how to prevent it from spreading.”