THEME: PUBLIC RELATIONS ♦ A good story is always an unbeatable way to stick in people’s minds. Recently I had a heated discussion with family members about whether it is acceptable to tell a story in a more colorful, embellished way in relation to the dry facts and details about source or place and time. This sort of ‘Poetic License’ could mean attributing the story to another person if that makes the story more powerful than saying, for example, that you thought it up yourself. This way of dressing-up a slightly boring story is called storytelling and is currently being propagated by many in the PR business as the best way of communicating your company’s roots or positioning. It makes a dry-as-a-bone story about a corporate history more interesting and readable than in its simple factual format. I like storytelling and I find it a powerful tool. However, I find facts and rigorous fact checking these days even more essential — especially in news stories, but also in other ways of distributing information to a wide variety of stakeholders.
Some stories need to be told as they are and not as they should be. In a time when proven (but perhaps inconvenient) facts are simply shoved aside as nonsense, it is even more important for professionals or students alike involved in any kind of communication or media profession. Whether it is journalism or PR, fact checking is a must, and should be a part of your process in writing a story or a news item or send out a press release for your client. My students at Leiden University of Applied Science (HSL) in cooperation with the University of Leiden have just started learning about the practice of PR and the workings of the various media. In their first year they are involved in a rigorous fact checking exercise for the stakeholders they might come to represent. They have to check their sources. They have to check the same story in other sources, or with an independent expert. If necessary, they have to go back to the first source if it turns out not to be completely correct.
Fact checking is not new and fake news is as old as history. In the eighties and nineties there were also bogus stories. In fact, all through history there have been propaganda and nonsense stories. According to John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute in Oxford, ‘Lies, seduction, persuasion, flattery and hypocrisy have always attended public life; alternative facts and fake news have been part of the feedstock of politics and journalism for centuries.’ But today, when leaders of the free world are talking about ‘alternative facts,’ it is incredibly important for junior communication professionals to be especially rigorous and disciplined about the proper respect for the truth.
We all know some newspapers fact check important items. We should all do this on behalf of our clients, and also check the stories our clients tell us. Why? Because we all need to feel responsible for the enormous flow of untrue stories currently flooding social media. We can’t stop this, but we can make sure that at least some percentage of this is checked and as close to the objective truth as possible. Take responsibility for what you post yourself and what you are associated with that goes into the public domain. According to Lionel Barber of the Financial Times we must rededicate ourselves to the old task of aggregating and verifying sources. ‘This is vital when opinion often Trumps facts.’, he wrote.
(Lionel Barber quoted from Fake news in the post-factual age)