Fake news and the ugly rise of sponsored content

This PR pro says corporate communicators are to blame for clickbait articles and false stories, because native advertising has changed the way readers look at articles. He also faults mainstream news outlets.

This article originally ran on PR Daily in February of 2017.

Corporate communicators are to blame for the fake news epidemic.

That’s surprising, perhaps, coming from a communications pro. Yet I wonder whether “communications pro” will be a job title if we continue down the path we started nearly 100 years ago.

Vox reported that the top 20 fake news stories outperformed real news at the end of the 2016 campaign, based on Facebook engagements from August to Election Day. We wondered whether Tim Kaine was in an open marriage (he wasn’t), or whether Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t).

I won’t argue about politics and confirmation bias. I will assert that the corporate communications function (including marketing communications) paved the way for the adoption and proliferation of fake news.

Growing up, my favorite books were “Amelia Bedelia” by Peggy Parish (you don’t pitch a tent by throwing it, silly Amelia!) and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff. The latter taught me the risk of appeasement and the dreaded slippery slope—such as when you agree to let your sister-in-law spend the night and suddenly her cell phone bill is re-routed to your apartment.

Money talks

As with all problems, follow the money. Fake news wasn’t always fake, but it looked like news. In the early 20th century, companies began buying space in the paper to place “advertorials,” a portmanteau of advertising and editorial. These placements are ads disguised as editorial content. (See a few examples here.)

Companies got cookie after cookie, so to speak, in the years following: sponsored radio content, sponsored TV programs and infomercials, ushering in the great age of BuzzFeed and other sponsored content hubs.BuzzFeed isn’t alone; Forbes has BrandVoice, and even The New York Times partakes.

You can’t fault publishers for taking the easy route and selling their platforms—or can you?

Companies are benefiting from sponsored content. Research published by DigitalRelevance revealed that in 2015, “25% more consumers looked at sponsored articles than display ad units and native ads have been found to produce 18% higher lift in purchase intent and 9% higher lift for brand affinity than banner ads.”

I am not accusing corporate communicators of writing fake news articles about the pope, but I am accusing them of softening up the public to the idea of non-news owning the news. Perhaps it is confirmation bias at play: We click and share what we want to believe.

Where, though, did our critical thinking skills go? A survey by Contently found that most people don’t distinguish between sponsored content and editorial; good luck deciphering fake news from real news. It becomes even more difficult when real news outlets realize they inherently compete with sources of fake news (and sponsored content) and must sensationalize beyond acceptable limits.

The legacy of advertorials

Fake news is the ugly evolutional cousin to the advertorials of old. Companies have no incentive to abandon sponsored content, which would cultivate informed, critical-thinking consumers. The slippery slope is now a cliff.

We are hurtling toward a reality in which the top story in your virtual reality glasses will either be “Marketers Say Soda May Reverse Cavities,” by Pep C. Cola, or “Liberals Scientifically Lack Spines” by author unknown. A battle for the human mind, waged by corporation against absurdity. No matter who wins, we lose.

There is hope to reverse this trend, though. Corporate communicators have one tool at their disposal—authenticity.

Authenticity can fix this problem because it matters to people: 87 percent of global consumers say it’s important for brands to “act with integrity at all times,” yet only 72 percent call innovation essential. Authentic PR (an oxymoron to some) is also difficult, and it’s much harder than writing a check to Forbes. Not every brand can generate authentic, positive PR, which means it can’t be bought.

Public relations and communications professionals often talk about earning a seat at the table. Well, this is it. This is the table, brought to you by Home Depot.

A threat to public relations

If we can’t get back to our authentic roots and restore boundaries between PR and journalism and fake news, you can forget PR as a practice in a few years. There won’t be any incentive to “earn” media coverage when all coverage is either bought or fake. I wouldn’t doubt that some PR agencies will transform to “creative storytelling” shops for corporate hire.

I commend Facebook for creating a technology solution. Technology features alone cannot solve the problem, though.

Brook Borel of FiveThirtyEight commented in a recent piece about fake news:

We can think before we click: Who is providing this news? Do they have incentives to lie? And if we see our connections spreading lies, how might we confront them?

Communicators for brands and agencies would do well to keep these comments in mind. As content creators, we have a role in strengthening the critical thinking muscles of the American people. If we can muster the courage to stand against the rampant proliferation of sponsored content, and return to truly earned media, we can make headway against fake news.

I’m interested in what my fellow communicators think about the fake news epidemic and, more important, our role in the solution. Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

John Pelle is head of external communications at AbleTo.

Topics: PR


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