Takeaways from PRSSA’s Fake News and Ethics Panel

By Peyton Pflug

As part of celebrating 50 years, Temple PRSSA hosted a mid-Atlantic regional conference this past weekend. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the fake news and ethics panel. The panel of media experts included Jason Mollica of American University, Adam Dvorin of Winning Strategies, Cherri Gregg of KYW News Radio, Gabriel Escobar of The Inquirer, and Matt O’Donnell of 6ABC. Each of the experts weighed in on the issue of fake news and how to report stories in an ethical way. I walked out of the panel having learned quite a few lessons I believe are imported to apply to not only the journalism side of reporting but also the public relations side.

When discussing relationships and trust within the news and media industry, Cherri Gregg described her rule of thumb as being “friendly, not friends.” Gregg mentioned the importance of maintaining a balance between professional and casual relationships when it comes to working. Being punctual is essential to fostering these work relationships, especially in such deadline drove fields such as public relations and journalism. Being on time or early shows you respect the other’s time. According to Gregg, being is one behavior that risks burning a bridge and losing trust, which can be easily lost and difficult to rebuild.

Jason Mollica brought up another useful piece of advice when it comes to being ethical: “It is better to be last and right than first and wrong.” In today’s world, social media can be seen as a double-edged sword. While it allows news to be spread quickly, this adds pressure on journalists and public relations professionals to be the first to get their ideas published. Matt O’Donnell attested to this as well with an anecdote about reporting on the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Being a crisis and tragedy, this is an example of an event in which strictly ethical and factual responses are essential because families and lives were affected. In order to avoid being swept up in social media, rumors, and speculation, Gabriel Escobar suggested keeping in mind the two pillars of journalism: accuracy and fairness. Remembering these can help bring you back to the purpose of your work, whether it be journalism or public relations: to tell a story.

On the public relations side, these lessons are essential when it comes to crisis communication. When dealing with a crisis, it is important to maintain an ethical approach. This can be difficult when you are under pressure, scrutiny, or even blame. You may not have all the information available about the crisis yet are likely to be asked about it by reporters. In order to stay ethical, it is important to be open and honest by telling the affected groups what you know – even if this means answering, “I do not know at this moment,” which is a perfectly acceptable response if you are telling the truth. I think this is an important thing to note because dealing with a crisis is inevitable when working in PR. Professionals are likely to get asked tough questions, and nobody wants to face the media without answers. However, being ethical and honest will not only help you face the crisis as a communicator but also prevent the spread of fake news.


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