Disinformation, or deliberately false or misleading information, costs brands billions of dollars annually, damages trust in organizations, and has an overall negative effect on society. We saw this when Facebook parent company Meta shut down disinformation campaigns designed to undermine confidence in the Ukraine government as Meta continues to combat disinformation that affects the trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine war. With the widespread infiltration of disinformation, what are marketing and public relations professionals’ responsibility in spreading and combatting it?
According to the 3rd Annual Institute for Public Relations Disinformation in Society Report, the majority of the 2,200 Americans surveyed believe marketers, advertisers, and public relations are responsible for spreading disinformation. Sixty-one percent said marketers and advertisers, and 58 percent said public relations were at least “somewhat responsible” for spreading disinformation. Businesses did not escape scrutiny as half of the respondents said business CEOs, and 57 percent said major companies were responsible for spreading disinformation.
Americans believe disinformation is a significant problem in the U.S. More than two-thirds of respondents on both sides of the political aisle said that disinformation is a significant problem in society, more so than climate change, terrorism, and infectious disease outbreaks. But compared to the resources that organizations have invested in these other societal problems, disinformation prevention has fallen short.
The IPR Disinformation Report also dives into who should be responsible for combatting disinformation. Nearly three-fourths said marketers and advertisers should be at least somewhat responsible for combatting disinformation, and 77 percent called out public relations professionals. Major companies (73 percent) and CEOs (69 percent) were also noted by more than two-thirds of respondents as being responsible for combatting disinformation. However, a gap exists between how responsible these information sources are for spreading disinformation and how well they are combatting it. Only one-third of respondents said major companies were doing at least “somewhat” well in combatting disinformation, with public relations professionals (31 percent), marketers (24 percent), and business CEOs (24 percent) falling behind as well.
Clearly, Americans believe business institutions and leaders should be doing more when it comes to stopping the spread of disinformation. While companies usually have plans to react to disinformation campaigns or be warned of potential threats, few are proactively working internally or in society to help deter its spread.
Fortunately, there are action steps organizations can take. First, companies should train their employees on media literacy to discern and evaluate the credibility of information sources. Second, companies should support credible news sources and journalists, especially local news, through subscriptions, funding, and advertising, while pulling funding and advertising from biased, poorly vetted sources. Third, companies should serve as information hubs for their employees, operating transparently and authentically. Fourth, companies should support nonprofits and other organizations that support media literacy, combat disinformation, and serve as fact-checkers. Even if companies make just one of these commitments, they can help make a difference and improve trust within a distrustful society.
Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., is President and CEO, Institute for Public Relations and Anetra Henry is Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives, Institute for Public Relations.