Masters’ Institute Fosters Real Discussion on Fake News

Although they seem like punchlines at this point, “fake news” and “alternative facts” are very real concerns for agencies, their clients, and the media. Social media as an increasing reporting tool, and attacks on the free press, have increased the pressure on traditional news outlets to defend themselves and find new ways to reach their target audiences where they live.

On March 1, more than 20 leaders from agencies, corporate communications departments and educational institutions gathered for the latest edition of the Publicity Club of New England’s Masters’ Institute, sponsored by Eastern Bank, to explore these topics in the context of how today’s media environment impacts the ability to manage clients’ reputations.

Moderator Edith Onderick-Harvey of NextBridge Consulting posed questions to panelists:

  • Don Martelli, VP and Director of Digital Integration at Schneider Associates
  • Robert Collins, SVP at Racepoint Global
  • Molly McPherson, Social Media Strategist at Social Shift Media
  • Anne Mattina, Professor of Communications and Communications Department Chair at Stonehill College.

A few points about managing reputations and gaining mindshare bubbled to the surface during the course of the 90-minute discussion, including:

  • Collins remarked that we’ve collectively reached a point where we as consumers of news are rewarding the wrong things. Clickbait drives publishing dollars and essentially prioritizes what we’re viewing based on open rates.
  • Collins also theorized that facts no longer resonate, and as storytellers for our clients’ brands, we need to create content that connects emotionally and focuses on the human element of any story. He added that “People aren’t looking for facts anymore. They’re looking for engagement.”
  • Martelli added that believability is a very real issue now, too, and that producing video content – where key messages, and their supporting images, are coming directly out of the speaker’s mouth – is the way to win over viewers. As attention spans dwindle, visual content is now winning more often than long-form pieces in the market at large.
  • The panel also debated the role of different audiences, and McPherson pointed out that there are differing approaches needed when targeting digital immigrants vs. digital natives.
  • McPherson and Collins both agreed that creating a voice or channel for the leader of your company is essential to success. As Collins put it, “you can’t build a house on land you don’t own.”

As the event neared its conclusion, the discussion turned to how truth in news reporting can be confirmed, especially for digital natives who have grown up with a different perspective on news platforms, thanks to social media sites like Facebook.

Mattina advised that the role of the editor has become more important than ever, and that editors are becoming just as central to the story as the reporters themselves. If a story has been edited, there is a better chance that the facts have been checked, and that unsubstantiated claims will have been questioned or even omitted. It’s through that filter that we should be judging sources and purveyors of news content.

Martelli added that we as agencies should train the next generation of PR pros to understand these subtleties by setting up informational meetings with reporters and organizing tours of newsrooms, so that digital natives can learn about the process of producing a story, and the checks and balances that go into it. This is the best way to combat the phenomenon of fake news, and to advise clients on how to navigate reputation management within this new context.

The next Masters’ Institute event will take place in early May. Please watch this space for more details on the date, topic and venue.


The Masters’ Institute comprises a series of private, invite-only events for PR practitioners with at least 10 years of experience. The events are free to Publicity Club of New England members and first-time non-members.

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