As a kid debating my parents over whatever I deemed the world’s latest injustice, my mother would often counsel, “Saying it louder doesn’t make you right.” Mom was clearly unfamiliar with the internet.
Trending newsfeeds today evoke unrestrained screaming contests. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” have entered the lexicon. The concept of reality is eroding, and it’s increasingly hard to publicly converse with civility or depth. Our technology is manipulated and misused to amplify fallacious arguments and to shill agenda-driven drivel.
In the communications business, as in life, this problem stretches far beyond spin. The promotion of misleading or brazenly fabricated information in the guise of news is a dangerous blight.
Just a few years ago, we’d all laugh when silly headlines from The Onion made it into the “real news” cycle. We’ve since progressed to a world of PizzaGate, safe products that aren’t, crackpots influencing government policy, international disinformation campaigns, and an inability to discern fact from fiction.
It’s no laughing matter. All professional communicators have a duty to help fix this problem by standing up for truth.
This isn’t something that will be sorted out in newsrooms. It extends to what we all post on our blogs, share on social media, include in op-eds, PowerPoints, white papers and press releases.
Regardless of what’s going viral, or what you feel pressured to produce by advisors or clients, ethical discourse matters. We all have to live in the world we shape with our narratives.
Embody these attributes, and hold both internal and external communications teams—and yourself—to these standards:
1. Be honest.
Authenticity is priceless. If your client hopes to do or be something, go ahead and say so, but be transparent about where they are in that pursuit. Don’t inflate or misrepresent the situation just to spice up a story, advance a brand objective or win page views. A bent toward hyperbole is an affront to truth and can snowball into catastrophe. (Remember Theranos?)
Conversely, feel free to tout real value and successes. Openly share vetted, verified data and hard-won experience. There’s nothing wrong with staking a claim, so long as you back it up with facts.
2. Check your sources.
Pause before you cite or share “found” content online. Do the links trace to valid data? Who are the sources? Where did referenced statistics or images come from?
Assertions from shrieking radio hosts and Macedonian teenagers might be entertaining to some, but it’s better to err on the side of Gartner or Gallup or Pew. We can no longer rely on the notion that if anything seems too weird to be true, it probably isn’t.
If you do come across something astonishing that the international press corps has somehow overlooked, check with Snopes before you share it.
3. Do your duty.
If you are a subject matter expert, please stand up. If you represent an expert, nudge them into the debate.
Our world would be poorer if Carl Sagan never eviscerated pseudoscience, Marc Andreessen never suggested that software is eating the world, or Clayton Christensen never asked how to measure a life’s work. We need real expertise and analysis.
In the words of Louis Pasteur, “knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.”
Do not cede the power of information to trolls and bots. Contribute genuine knowledge to the conversation, and you are contributing to the cause of truth.
Deirdre Blake is senior content manager for Sterling Communications. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.