18 Mar 2020

Keep calm and share responsibly

Adam Hartley – Head of Content at Spreckley

Practising responsible and effective PR in the midst of what the director-general of the World Health Organisation recently dubbed a fake news ‘infodemic’ certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘going viral’.

For the best part of the last 20 years, achieving ‘virality’ has been the Holy Grail of the PR industry. Yet faced with the deluge of today’s fake news infodemic, perhaps it is time to switch our focus? Back in the heady days of what we once quaintly called ‘online PR’, creating a short, punchy ‘viral’ video that splashed your clients key messages across the internet sowed the seeds for what has since blossomed (or, depending upon your PoV, malignantly spread) into today’s social and content marketing industry.

In those days, removing the shackles of print editorial gatekeepers and official industry or state comms channels felt like a true liberation for many PR specialists like us. Simply create great (engaging, informative, entertaining) content and then get people to share it online. Simples!

Buzzfeed, LADbible, Vice, Refinery29 and many more new media darlings have all devised clever new business models based on a combination of the VAD (valence-arousal-dominance) theory of content with the targeting power of big data.


‘Spread responsibly’: crisis informatics and fake news

Yet what of the fake news epidemic? Now, more than ever, in the panic-throes of almost-hourly Covid-19 updates, the PR industry finds itself stuck in a problem of its own making. To put it bluntly: when any old Tom, Dick or Harriette can produce an internet-busting meme, anything goes. So how the hell do we make any sense out of the world, faced with a tsunami of delicious, fact-free content at our fingertips? As The Observer’s John Naughton pointed out in a recent Covid-19 editorial: “Sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be.

“There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at a site. And innocently conceived jokes can trigger panic-buying.”

Citing “crisis informatics” expert Kate Starbird of Washington State University, Naughton suggests that we can counter the spread of fake news online in the same way we are counteracting the spread of Coronavirus in the real world.

“Whenever you’re tempted to share a dramatic snippet of ‘information’ about Covid-19 that’s just popped into your social media feed – don’t. Just say no. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be slowing the propagation of a pernicious meme.”

Which is exactly why ‘spread responsibly’ may well be the epitaph the PR industry needs to combat the pernicious threat of a fake news infodemic.