April Fools’ Day news stories this year felt far less amusing than in years gone by.
In an era of ‘fake news’, false stories about Prince Harry’s secret Vegas wedding fell flat as my social media feed filled instead with articles urging news readers to engage the sceptical part of their brain, usually reserved for 1 April, all year-round.
Publishing prank stories to an unsuspecting audience on April Fools’ Day or any other day of the year, as one Mashable journalist noted, “just isn’t funny anymore”.
As Donald Trump cries “fake news” at press conferences while some mainstream media outlets show blatant bias, objective and impartial journalism has never felt more important. Or more at threat.
At the 2017 Wales Media Awards, where Freshwater was one of the sponsors, the best and brightest of Wales’s journalists were recognised for their efforts to shine a light on issues in their local communities.
But concern about the challenges facing the media were palpable. From the opening address of the evening’s host, Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan, to the closing remarks of veteran Welsh broadcaster, Vincent Kane, journalists were reminded of the importance of their role.
Much may have changed since the 18th century when the media was dubbed the Fourth Estate – the nobility, clergy and commoners being the other three – but the need to hold those in power to account and dig for the truth is greater than ever.
This is no easy task when traditional media outlets are struggling to stay afloat and newsrooms are more sparsely populated than they should be to keep up with a 24/7 internet-driven news cycle.
It is not helped either by the fact that ownership has become more concentrated prompting many to lose faith in its objectivity and seek information online.
Social media may be a vehicle for ‘fake news’ but it has gained credibility because it is also a channel for sharing truthful reports - and interesting opinions - that are often shut out of mainstream media.
Rupert Murdoch claims he doesn’t interfere editorially in newspapers he owns but, in 2003, every one of his 175 titles supported the Iraq war peddling what turned out to be a fictitious premise.
This begs the question: what is a reliable source?
Facebook’s new ‘tips for spotting false news’ leaves this to your own judgement, saying simply “check the story is written by a source that you trust”.
So where does this leave the PR and communications industry?
We can and should be a trustworthy source – for journalists and the public – but we already suffer from a reputation for spin and can ill-afford to be complicit in any lapses that further weaken confidence.
It is our job to ensure the client information we communicate is accurate and that spokespeople are appropriately qualified to contribute meaningfully to the news agenda.
Freshwater is a member of professional bodies such as the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), both of which have professional charters and codes of conduct that members must adhere to.
Being CIPR and PRCA members signals professionalism and a commitment to uphold the highest standards. If we don’t, we can be held accountable by an independent authority.
We have signed up to codes of conduct that demand integrity, competence, transparency and confidentiality and have been shortlisted for the PRCA’s Ethical Champion Award.
The PRCA’s professional charter states we have “a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently”.
The CIPR’s integrity standards, meanwhile, demand we speak out when asked to take unethical action and hold us personally responsible for the action of colleagues, subordinates, business partners or subcontractors who answer to us.
As communications professionals, not only do we play a role in the news cycle but we rely on public trust in credible journalism to do our job effectively.
We sponsored the political award at the Wales Media Awards because we understand the value of this two-way street. It’s essential that it continues to prosper.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail newspaper in April 2017.
Angharad Neagle is group managing director of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy.