Episode 12

Published on:

15th Jun 2023

S2 E12: Combatting Fake News and Misinformation with David Wills

The rise of disinformation, mal-information, and misinformation is a growing concern in Canada, just as it is in the United States and other countries. The Institute of Public Relations recently published a study highlighting the significant gap that exists between the sources responsible for combating disinformation and how well they are actually doing it. In this episode, David Wills, a Toronto-based public relations expert, talks about Canadians' attitudes towards disinformation and who they believe is responsible for combating it.

About the Guest

David Wills is Senior Vice President of Media Profile, Canada’s largest full-service, independent PR agency based in Toronto, Ontario. He has been proving senior strategic counsel to Canadian business, not-for-profit and political leaders for more than 25 years. David began his career as a journalist for a string of weekly newspapers before becoming a political aide for the Ontario provincial government. He is an active supporter of the Canadian Journalism Foundation and has been involved in their campaigns to combat fake news and misinformation.

About the Host

Abbie Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. Our executive producer is Adrian McIntyre.

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Adrian McIntyre:

From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

David Wills:

I'm David Wills. I'm with Media Profile, which is a Toronto-based independent public relations firm. We've been around for more than 35 years and we're about 50 people strong.

Abbie Fink:

David, there was a study published by the Institute of Public Relations that says, there's a significant gap that exists between the sources which should be responsible for combating disinformation versus how well they are actually combating it. And we have heard so much over the last handful of years about disinformation, mal-information, and misinformation that I was intrigued by this this statement and then really it's it went a little bit further and specifically talking about how Canadians feel about disinformation and who's responsible for that. And I wanted to dive in a little bit with you on that, given that you as a communications professional and that you're guiding clients around this idea of being trustworthy and transparent. This is a pretty powerful statement about who should be responsible and how well they're doing it or how well they're not doing it in this case. What are your thoughts on that?

David Wills:

You know, I do think it's a problem in Canada, just like it's a problem in the United States and just like it's a problem in other countries. When we look at those sources that should be correcting, that's a pretty broad group. It could be, you know, media that are covering those stories that should be challenging. You know, there are the people they interview and they get information from more directly. But it's also the organizations that are at the heart of that information. And I think one of the things that concerns me the most is that people are being selective in correcting misinformation based on whether it's in their interest to correct it or not, as opposed to just correcting the information. That's a slippery slope that is getting a little steeper. Media do a very good job of trying to combat it, but we're seeing camps of media develop just like you are in the United States, which is, you know, this is a media that is more right wing. This is a media that's more left wing. And they tend to do the same sort of thing. and they attract an audience that supports those views and we end up with polarization and then misinformation gets lobbed back and forth. But I think it's the sources of the information themselves where we really have to be tackling this. We can't rely just on media to do it because of that polarization.

Abbie Fink:

I can remember when going through journalism school and we would talk about when an error was made in a story, what was the responsibility of the publication. The factual error needed to be corrected and published as a correction within so many days of the occurrence. And there was a place in the paper where corrections would occur. If you found something that was factually incorrect, it was the responsibility of the editor, the reporter, whoever it was to make that fix. Oftentimes I'll have these conversations with clients and there's an explanation between if you didn't like the way it came across versus whether it was actually correct or incorrect. The challenge that we have today, I think, to your point, there are numerous media outlets, and I use that word a little bit loosely, that have formed that are really intended to put out information that ... My challenge is whether it's wrong information or information we don't agree with. And I think there has to be some distinction in that, if it's factually incorrect, or if it's just an opinion that I don't happen to agree with. Opinions need to be designated as such, and not put out there as potential news. That's where I think the biggest challenge comes in.

David Wills:

What you're really talking about is a lack of balance, because sometimes it can be factually correct, but it's only presenting the evidence that supports one position or one ideology, and doesn't balance it out that others may disagree and that therefore they see the world in a different way. You know, you talk about media there, that was how I started my career as well. I worked for a chain of weekly newspapers, and my editor used to take me to task on my stories and say, “Can you back this up? OK, this person said this. Why didn't you go and talk to this person to get balance?” And I think one of the things that we've seen is that media newsrooms have been stripped down to the bare bones. So to give you an idea, in Canada, our major daily newspapers no longer have copy editors on staff. They farm it out to a company called Pagemasters that employs former copy editors that worked for the other papers who do the copy editing of some stories, not all, but they don't fact check, they just copy edit. So the fact checking part has gone. The research departments are gone. They can't afford them because they don't bring revenue in. And we're seeing more mistakes that are made by media and we're seeing them corrected. And in Canada, they do a pretty good job of doing a proper correction and giving it the proper profile, especially with social media. But the problem is that it's all about speed and there isn't that second set of eyes anymore. So we, as an audience, we have to know that and we have to filter it and say, hmm, that doesn't seem right to me and look for other sources ourselves.

Abbie Fink:

Well, right. There's this underlying, “we need to be first, we'll worry about being right later.” And that's a bit of a challenge. And I think the algorithm world that we live in now that feeds us content based on what we've looked at before, you know, drives the fact that we're going to continue to see the same kind of information if we get our sources of information in an online platform. We've talked about this as an industry. I think that the consumers need to be smart about the news that they are consuming. And some level need to take responsibility as well to research the facts if they hear about something that feels that might not be quite right or I don't understand it or this is the first time I've heard it, can I find it somewhere else? And it doesn't necessarily mean that the somewhere else has it actually 100% correct either, but to start to be able to corroborate the information, I think there's some responsibility. The study talked about whether it was the government's responsibility, whether it was the journalist responsibility, which I think takes some of that as well. But I think as consumers of news, we should be taking responsibility as well for how we interpret the information that we're being given.

David Wills:

Yeah, and I think we still see good examples of, you know, this is a bad word in Canada right now, the “gatekeepers” on that, that are keeping people honest. So one of the major newspapers in Canada, when there's an election, they run a kind of a BS meter on what the politicians say. What they'll do is they'll take each leader of a party. And we're not a two-party system here. We have at least three major parties and probably five at the federal level because we have a separatist party in Quebec. But they will follow the leaders and listen to everything they say publicly for one week. And that is going to events and listening to their speeches, their media interviews, any material that they put out. And then they fact check it all and they rate it. That, you know, here's our candidate for President of the Universe, Abbie. She made this many comments and she was 90% accurate. And then they compare them against each other. And it's pretty brutal because sometimes. They call it out. It's like, “Well, what she said is technically correct, but the framing she used makes it incorrect. Because Abbie said David said this. Yes, he said that, but he didn't say that about what she's saying. He said it about …” And they actually do a pretty good job. But I kind of wonder how many people read that. I devour it, right? I get up in the morning knowing that today's the one that's coming out, and I look at it. I'm always disappointed when my candidates don't score a hundred percent, but they're humans. That's rare and they don't do it all the time. I think we can't rely on media. We can get upset at media when they deliberately share misinformation. But I think we can't blame them for not calling everybody out on it because they don't have the time or the resources.

Abbie Fink:

This is one of the challenges I have, because I'll also strongly believe in our journalists and in their ethical standards and their code of ethics that they practice. It's the deliberateness of it. So I think I want to believe that our mainstream media, if that's even something that makes sense anymore, not to discount the lack of staff and some of the other things that are happening in the newsrooms today, but journalistic ethics should still stand and say, we need to fact check, we need two sources, at least in our story. If we heard conflicting information, we should figure out how to verify it. It's the publications or the media outlets that are not traditional or ethical publications. The ones that are being driven by a very specific platform. They are trying to get information out and they're not held to those same standards. They don't subscribe to a code of ethics of any kind, and it's really propaganda, and it's intended to provide misinformation or lead you down a particular path. So again, the distinction for me is, how do we help consumers of news being part of that world understand the difference? What is factual? What is multiple sources versus a one source opinion, which is what that ends up being when you're making decisions about what you're reading. And then when we're working with our clients, how do we make sure that we have very specific goals in mind for what we want to get out there on behalf of the organizations that we represent? To some extent, we want to be the source for stories and be the only source a reporter relies on. And that feeds into that challenge as well.

David Wills:

I think you've touched on something which is sort of the value of good communications council. And this is a bit of a shameless plug for the PR industry here. But our clients still value earned media. I think people, if you look at what has influence, it's personal connection. So if Abbie recommends this washing machine to me because she's my friend, she's bought this, this is her or experience, that gets the most weight. The second most influential thing is earned media. So it's a story in traditional media that will influence people. And I think that a good public relations counselor, when they're putting their client in front of the media, they know about the outlet, they know about the journalists, they know what the journalist has written about in the past. They know what the publication, what their, if they have an agenda, it's maybe not an agenda, but it could be an approach. Some media like short-form media. They like very short stories, 200 words, whereas a magazine may want 2000 words or more. And we prepare our clients for that encounter based on that knowledge of the journalist and the person they're engaging with. Because if we can help them understand what that journalist is delivering to their audience, our clients can have better information, have it ready, provide some of that balance, give them direction. They can point to a study, for example, like you let off this segment pointing to a study. That's not an Abbie Fink study. It's something that you read, but you're pointing people to it that they can go and get information to make decisions on their own. The PR counselor's role is to make sure that people who want to provide information through the media know what they're getting into. They know enough about the person they're talking to and then they can do it more effectively.

Abbie Fink:

How do you relate that same theory, because I 100% agree with it, to the social platforms that we're using where truly anyone with an internet connection, a mobile device can become a journalist simply by putting out content? I remember reading something not all that long ago that said, you know, people are clicking through and posting links to things without ever reading the content because the headline grabbed them or it felt like it was something look legit, they just share it. We're passing that information along really without even reading it ourselves. Social media, or digital communications, has really altered that ability, I think, to know the journalists that we're working with. We would have relationships with reporters that we work with. I'm assuming you do similar. You reach out to them, you get to know them a little bit, you meet for coffee, you're at an industry event, you learn about them more than just what they do in their daily job. But the things online have a much different, you don't get to know those folks in the same way. It has certainly led to, in my view, more of a distribution of that misinformation or disinformation because they're just hit and share. They're not worrying about vetting it at all.

David Wills:

A lot of journalists do self-promotion. They write an article and then they put it out on Twitter or some other social platform to extend the reach of it, to drive people to reading that story. One of the things that we've seen here, and I'm sure you probably have some examples in the US as well, there are some journalists who've spectacularly flamed out with their social media activity where they become the story instead of the stories that they're covering are the story. And what happens is that then nobody wants to talk to them because they see them commenting about stories and they see them putting their opinion in. And when they call our clients and say, “I'd like to talk to you about housing,” and it's like, “No way. You called me a radical, woke, lefty, socialist, all of these things that are labeled in a negative way.” That's one of those words are positive, but they insult them. Then all of a sudden they can't get their phone calls returned because they've shown too much of themselves and nobody trusts them. The sources don't trust them and they can no longer effectively do their jobs. I think social media, we all have our opinions on it. You know, in many ways Twitter has very much become a cesspool in certain things with news and with sharing. I do see that the community sort of gangs up on it where you'll share something and people will immediately pounce on you say, “did you even read this? It was about that.” And I see people saying, “my bad, I just read the headline, and I'm going to take it down.” They take responsibility for it. They get it sort of self-governing that way, but you're right that it's the, read the headline, click, “I can't believe they did this.” And then when you actually read the story, the headline's not what you thought it was. And it's like, “oh, disconnect here. And I'm now part of the misinformation, disinformation industry.”

Abbie Fink:

You know, it's a huge responsibility. Again, we look at it differently in that we're in this on a daily basis. But anyone that chooses to engage and share content, to me there's a responsibility in recognizing what you're doing and what you're putting out there, whether that's because you are being paid to do it, or you find the headline interesting enough. You mentioned trustworthiness, you're right. If you tell me something, I trust you because I know you and I believe you will guide me in the right direction. And therefore it's comfortable for me to do that. We've established a relationship that allows me to trust. And to some extent, I think it's our responsibility to help guide our clients and the organizations that we represent to be that trustworthy source, right? That we can provide information that's valuable and welcomed out into the world. We help you find the place for it to go that will make the most impact and then live by that transparent principles that we continue to have that trustworthiness really in anything else that we put forward. And it's a huge responsibility for all parts in my view to ensure that we do everything we can to combat the continued distribution of incorrect information.

David Wills:

You mentioned trustworthiness, and that's really the heart of all of this. One of our organizations that Media Profile supports is the Canadian Journalism Foundation, and they're part of a worldwide effort that is tackling this misinformation from the perspective of earning trust, that journalists have to earn trust. Because we have seen a deterioration of trust with the public, with journalism. It's gone down. It's still very high, but it has diminished. And it's diminished because of bad behavior in media, and it's diminished because of this polarization. And it's also diminished because anybody can now say they're a journalist. We have these online outlets that follow politicians around, for example, and they just attack them. And try and get attention and then they post the videos online and then they propagate it through social media. They're in that sphere that they're considered journalists, even though they're really not. They're not properly trained, and they're doing something for an agenda or often for fundraising. Do something outrageous and you can raise money on it. Part of what the Canadian Journalism Foundation and others around the world are doing is trying to separate good, real journalists that are properly trained, that work to those ethical standards that you talked about and say, “No, that's not what journalists are. This is what journalism is,” to raise that trustworthiness. And they say things like check more than one source, even if it's more than one news source. If you go to just the stuff that aligns with your values, you're not getting the full story and you're doing yourself a disservice. We did a fun campaign with them during a federal election in Canada called Doubt It. We did this series of videos where there's that loudmouth dad at the dinner table saying, “I heard he wasn't even born in Canada, doesn't have a passport.” And then they panned to the other end of the table and there's Peter Mansbridge, who's Canada's most famous journalist. He was the host of the national news for years and years, and he's at the table and he just looks up and shakes his head. And then it says, “Doubt it. If it doesn't seem right, check it out,” and points to some tools. So you can have fun with that, but it's like the Canadian Journalism Foundation is seeing that they have a responsibility to defend journalism but also to hold it to a higher standard.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.

Abbie Fink:

We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.

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About the Podcast

PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network
Leading a business effectively in today's fast-paced and interconnected world requires expert guidance and a strong communications strategy. The Public Relations Global Network is here to help.
PRGN Presents is the essential podcast for international business leaders, non-profit executives, and those who hire public relations, marketing, and communications firms. It provides an exclusive look into the ever-evolving world of PR and communications, featuring experts from the Public Relations Global Network, “the world’s local public relations agency.”

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About your host

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Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of the Public Relations Global Network. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.