Fake news is big news at the moment, everybody is reporting about fake news, complaining about fake news or questioning which news is fake and which news is real.
Donald Trump has developed an unhealthy obsession with it and he is, in no small part, responsible for the furore which surrounds it as he labels all media and anyone who he doesn't agree with as fake.
The question is still pertinent though – how real is the actual news…?
As a news obsessive and trained journalist, I keep up with what is happening in the world and can no longer count the number of news feeds that I subscribe to daily, but even so, I can understand why people find it difficult to rationalise whether a source is honourable or not.
In the role of PR consultant, writing news stories or providing material for media distribution requires that the information provided is fully researched, backed with evidence and credible for both the media and the consumers of that media.
There lies the nub of this whole topic... How do you, as a consumer, wade through everything that is streamed through to your smartphone or computer via news-feeds, social media and other such mechanisms and determine which news has that credibility?
The first rule of thumb is to look at the source. Ask yourself, how much do you know about this source? Does it belong to a large organisation? Is it truly independent? And don't simply expect that the tweet from somebody you admire is fully authentic when you eagerly forward it on.
Reading the source may not be a simple as you think – look at how many media platforms are operated by News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's 'vertically integrated media company' which has hoovered up publications including The Sunday Times, The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, BSkyB and Fox News. How effective might these outlets be in reporting about the Murdoch empire's numerous scandals you might wonder...?
The second thing is to recognise is that 'there is no such thing as objective journalism...' (Hunter S. Thompson) which means that each story is delivered by a journalist or source and that first iteration of the story will be their perception of what took place, it will then be edited by somebody else and may take on their interpretation, so it has been influenced.
This doesn't make the story any less true – but if you only read one broadsheet newspaper, you will also be influenced by the political leanings of that publication, so Guardian only readers are unlikely to espouse right-wing views in the same way that avid Times readers will not veer towards left-wing ideologies. This affects a person's interpretation of a story so it is relevant to this debate.
Which brings me to the third point, the need to cross reference your news sources, it is the only way to keep an objective opinion and something that most people miss out on. If you want real news, the onus is on you dear reader to research what you read, seek different viewpoints and question what you are reading. Then you'll find the most truthful news line.
There has always been fake news, it is not a new advent – publications could historically pop up from any back-street printer with the aim of supporting a political ideal, unsourced, uncredited, sometimes taken as the gospel truth, this often scandalous material could create enough ground-swell to change society.
The difference nowadays is that the public are all publishers in their own right and a few spurious words on social media can travel the world in seconds and potentially generate a massive audience. If enough people share one inaccurate post, it can become believable or the true origins behind those words become lost, so the source is no longer identifiable.
So now to the fourth and one of the most contentious points, do not believe social media…
I mean this, because although there are some credible sources on social media, it pays to refer back to the source, whether that is an authoritative website or newspaper/broadcaster – because it is far too easy for people to have their accounts hacked or otherwise compromised and false information to be disseminated in another person's name.
Aside from that - how do you even know whether @jeremycorbyn is the leader of the Labour Party or not? There are no failsafe verification tests to establish author authenticity on social media, non at all.
And social media has another, more insidious undercurrent, it is both a hive of personal information and a platform which can shape public perception via the tactics of unscrupulous agencies, a fact which is now being widely recognised in the run up to election campaigns.
Companies can dredge data and analytics from platforms such as Facebook and that data can be used to tailor information which is then fed back to the user, via the same means. In layman's terms – if you regularly like posts regarding a particular religious ideal for example, then Facebook starts searching on your behalf for similar material. We've all seen the 'other posts you might like' option popping up periodically – algorithms sort that little lot for you, but is anyone checking the veracity of such posts or information? Crucially, this shifting feed is affecting your objectivity in the same way that only reading one newspaper may affect you, but at a more extreme level because it is more personalised.
Original content is king in this day and age – regional and trade media publications, where they are able to survive without the undue influence of advertising and 'advertorial' content, are some of the best sources of original material. Many broadsheets are similarly dutiful, but there will always be a more evident political bias within the nationals.
And the generation of original content is why good PR agencies will survive. They won't necessarily be the 'yes men' – pedalling pointless stories on absolutely anything, they will be insightful advisors delivering quality content and topical information for our understaffed journals.
Last week, we saw our own content published in The Times, the Financial Times, The Daily Mail, put out on the national PR newswires and used by legions of business, trade and regional news publications.
The reason? We provide real news for our clients and act as a real news resource for the media. So whether you are looking for a proven Public Relations agency or whether you are just trying to find the genuine news, learning how to steer away from the fake stuff is crucial and that means questioning what you are told…..
It's the question on everybody's mind in the run up to a June referendum and is fascinating from a communications and public relations perspective.
Businesses are intrinsically linked to the implications of a Brexit – and equally to a UK which opts to stay and continue along the EU course.
For many companies, staying in the EU is something they feel compelled to do. They see the importance of trade via Europe as crucial and are not convinced that a safe trade alternative exists.
Other business leaders see the systems that the UK has in place, as a legacy of EU membership, as important – and fundamentally, not something you can simply change overnight.
I'll put this out there from the outset. For me – it's important that whatever route the UK takes, businesses and the general public need to go with the decision and make the most out of the situation. If we stay, we work harder to improve Britain's gain from the union. If we leave, let's build a new future and work at making a success of it. Either way, it will require dedicated effort from the whole populace.
What is most apparent from an objective PR viewpoint, is that the overarching fears of businesses wishing to remain within the EU are based upon uncertainty, not necessarily on what a great future EU membership promises.
The fact is that the EU is not very stable and we only have to look at the fallout of the European debt crisis on Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus to see where it is destabilising.
So the short-term view that we don't want to rock the boat by leaving Europe needs to be tempered by a longer-term opinion of what state the EU will be like, over the next decade for example. Will it contain the same member states? How will the European debt crisis play out? How much will EU membership change our culture?
In 2015 the UK government paid £13 billion to the EU budget, and EU spending on the UK was £4.5 billion. So the UK’s ‘net contribution’ was estimated at about £8.5 billion.
It takes a very good economic argument to demonstrate that this is a great fiscal return – and for those who choose to fear the unknown elements of leaving the EU, remaining a part of the union does not guarantee that this payment ratio will remain the same – as the European Debt Crisis continues, those payments may change.
And it leaves much deliberation on what those funds could be used for if they weren't being sucked into the EU machine – state aid for our steel industry perhaps? Creating a fairer system for our agricultural industry? Re-establishing our fishing fleet? Who knows, we might find that it simply goes into bailing out the NHS and our economy suffers as a result...
Nonetheless – there is certainly great trading engagement between UK businesses and many European businesses, which is valuable so it is only natural that those companies should be cautious.
Equally, many see the EU as a stabilising partnership, whereby member states maintain good relations with each other and this helps those countries to interract - but let's not lose sight of the fact that trade is very much in decline between the UK and the EU as the wider EU economy stagnates.
So it poses the question – what happens to this trade if we leave the EU?
The leave lobby make the point that there is no certainty that the UK will lose this trade, but leaving the EU might pave the way for trade to flourish more openly with non-EU countries such as India, Brazil and the Far East with no EU imposed trade tariffs to contend with. They also make the point that the EU is in economic meltdown and if that is true – it raises a big question mark over retaining our membership.
And it also poses the question of why we are so scared that the trade door to the European mainland will be slammed shut in the event of a Brexit? If the trade exists – what possible benefit is there to Europe (which frankly needs the money) in locking the UK out?
We can also look at countries such as Norway and Switzerland, which have no EU membership and yet can trade freely within the common market. If the UK does leave the EU – this is the precedent that our Government would look to pursue.
What is apparent is that much of the UK's current laws are based on legislation passed down from Brussels. Would a Brexit collapse our legal system? It's an interesting conundrum. The likely outcome (according to our legal friends) is that the UK would simply continue to uphold much of the European legislation that works for us, but would make a return to creating its own laws, possibly taking influence from Europe, where it suits our needs.
It is also not without risk – to make sweeping changes to our legislative system could be catastrophic and would mire the country in bureaucracy, but if the changes were implemented gradually, it would have far less of an impact.
On the other side of the coin - many people already feel that EU law is eroding this country's democracy and ability to govern itself. One likely scenario of retained EU membership is that this strength and breadth of overarching legislation will continue to increase.
I briefly mentioned agriculture earlier. There are many farmers who will argue that the EU subsidies are what helps them to survive, and there is some truth in this. However, I have also heard from farmers who are adamant that a Brexit would allow the UK to impose taxation on cheaper imported produce and support its own industry first, shoring up the massive decline in UK agriculture seen over the past decade.
Equally, there are business leaders who think that leaving the EU would allow the Government to impose a 'buy British' policy for all of its major infrastructure and power generation projects which could benefit manufacturing on these shores.
The big, thorny issue of immigration and border protection is also a key stumbling block for many in this debate.
It is another section of the discussion which seems to be considered on an 'all or nothing' basis. The free movement of EU citizens is a fundamental tenet of the union under the Schengen Agreement.
And the UK benefits from migrant workers. We know this because…? Well actually – our own Government has failed to put a return on the cash benefit of migrant workers to the UK, but we can take example from our European neighbours. A study by The University College of London of the European Economic Area (EEA - the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) showed that migrants had made a positive contribution in the decade up to 2011 - contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits.
Though this does not throw much light on what the balance of migrant work brings to the UK in 2016 for example.
Where the debate really breaks down is when people only consider a complete stop to immigration or a 'doors open to all' policy. These are extremes.
However, membership of the EU means that the Schengen Agreement is there and we should abide by it. And while we have that agreement to uphold, as the Prime Minister has demonstrated in his negotiations with the EU ahead of the referendum to get a better deal for the UK, there is little room for movement.
So making restrictions on immigration, which is complicated further by the mass migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe – much of which is driven by asylum needs, but also is heavily down to economic migration, is not very clear cut. And it is further tainted by Islamic terrorism, which many people do not necessarily view as separate from the issue of mass migration.
Do we really need to retake control of our borders – or are we actually benefiting from migrant workers?
These are just a few of the key issues being discussed, bandied about and generally amplified across the media. And it's difficult to see any of it becoming conclusive before the referendum.
Nobody said a decision on whether we leave the EU or remain a part of it was going to be easy, but we all have an obligation to make that choice.
The crucial factor from my communications pedestal is for people and business owners - including those in Sheffield and the wider South Yorkshire region to try looking beyond the big headlines and the fear factors.
We have seen masses of rhetoric and scaremongering from David Cameron's 'stay' camp – and the economic projections they have made alongside the Treasury are farcical at best. If this Government (and virtually every other UK Government in my lifetime) cannot accurately deliver domestic economic predictions for a simple 12 month period in office, then the likelihood of an 'economic impact assessment' for the Brexit over a period of years being accurate - is zero.
And if the leave campaign is to get any traction – it needs to be more apparent in its pledges, its suggested prospects and focus on what the most tangible, workable benefits of a Brexit may be, as well as clearly indicating problems posed by continued EU membership.
There are no certainties in the event of the UK leaving the European Union, none at all. There are also no certainties in the event that the UK stays within the EU, but it is vital that your decision is based on the long-term benefits and possibilities for this country to prosper.
For that to happen – you will need to look beyond the stay/leave PR...
The difficulties of running a global car manufacturing empire are legion, there is no doubt.
The logistics of new product development, employment, quality control and breaking new markets in different countries are inconceivable to the layperson. And for any car manufacturer, these things are dealt with by vast armies of highly skilled personnel.
For Volkswagen, these challenges are even greater by wont of the fact that they are the second largest in the game after Toyota.
Yet here we are, looking at one of the largest controversies and public relations problems faced by any manufacturer this century as the media machine uncovers the details behind Volkswagen's manipulation of emissions test results.
So why is this such a big deal? Nobody has died, the Wolfsburg plant hasn't collapsed in a terrorist incident, the company hasn't been discovered funding any questionable political factions. It's difficult to conceive of why this has made such extraordinary waves across the globe.
The PR fact of the matter is this: Volkswagen has been the master of proactive public relations. It is a name which is now synonymous with quality and is therefore more trusted than any other brand in the car world.
It beats the pants off the prestige brigade. Range Rover, Rolls Royce, Bentley etc – all have the common man thinking that someone, somewhere, is making huge money out of those premium-priced vehicles and that fact alone is enough to raise a cynical eyebrow.
Volkswagen is the peoples' car. It is more aspirational for most people than any other brand and regardless of your background or earnings level, you will be seen as tasteful and classy if you own one.
Ironically – it rose from the dark depths of Nazi rule as the car that Hitler himself conjured up for the masses, hardly an auspicious start…
Yet with the intervention of the British Government at the end of WW2, the Volkswagen factory was saved, seen as a necessary means for Germany to rebuild and to help itself rise from the physical and economic decimation wrought by war.
In doing so, the brand became a metaphor for good triumphing over evil. And in the intervening years, has gone on to be the most innovative, practical and globally conquering brand of our time with clones spewing forth from every other car factory – including the big boys like BMW and Mercedes.
Myriad adverts with uber-cool taglines and consistently award-winning advertising campaigns have created immense collateral for the brand. Creative, fast-thinking, entertaining and often topical PR has facilitated this. All of these associations have become a currency, enabling Volkswagen to trade on its desirability, backed by German quality.
VW has been championed by the world like no other brand. Who can forget The Beastie Boys' touting the VW badge as their bling of choice, prompting global thefts of the emblem from cars on every street. They chose VW over any other brand – and that kind of recognition is priceless.
The classic VW camper van is still the vehicle that everyone associates with the word 'camper', more than 65 years after it was launched. An incredible legacy matched only by that of the Golf, the first true hatchback and also the first 'hot hatch' in its Gti incarnation.
And now Volkswagen has lied...
The car brand which all others look up to is facing a mountain to climb in reassuring those millions of owners, customers and potential customers that it is still the brand of choice. And of course it will cost the company an extraordinary sum over many years of legal battles in numerous countries. The fall-out from this actually has the potential to end the production of diesel cars entirely.
What happens next will dictate how Volkswagen recovers.
And it will not be anything to do with emmissions, managerial resignations or any other mechanisms that we all expect to happen, because they will happen anyway as a matter of course - and does anyone really care if a top-level boss steps down?
Although nobody is doubting the potential damage that this vastly expensive mistake will wreak on Volkswagen, what will be interesting to see is how the company manages its PR in the wake of this scandal, while the eyes of the world are watching its every move and analysing its every soundbite.
Crisis PR management is something which can define or sink a business and many big organisations have got it badly wrong over the years.
Could this be the company's greatest challenge? It's unlikely that it will compare to VW's miraculous rise from the carnage of WW2 and its very difficult severance from an undeniable Nazi heritage, but it is already a massive problem.
The question posed is this; if Volkswagen gets the PR right on this massive calamity, can it maintain credibility and preserve its marque of quality?
Public Relations has historically been attributed many different elements depending on who you speak to.
We define PR as a method of raising, developing and protecting client profiles – a definition that our clients happily give testimony to.
And within that process, we embrace a wide range of mechanisms to reinforce client profiles but we still rank media relations, including online, print and broadcast, as one of the most crucial means.
People may argue that this is because of our journalistic qualifications – particularly those who studied for a PR degree, and may have an understandably restricted insight into the workings of the media, but they'd be wrong.
We rate media relations highly because the media provides an ongoing dialogue about all that is important within the business and social spheres across the country and beyond. That dialogue is fundamental as a means to place client achievements so that they are recognised by an audience which has chosen to read about it.
And one of the reasons we are consultants, is knowing when to say no. Not everything is news - and there are many more ways to enhance those profiles through insightful PR initiatives. What benefit is there to a client if a fragment of a hashed up story is pushed to the media? None. To go public with insubstantial 'news' can actually be damaging to that client's profile, making them appear less than they are - but we see those scrappy stories appearing all too often.
There are many other valuable elements to our trade. Social media is a fascinating and important tool to engage with and it carries positive and negative connotations depending on how it's handled. Clients rely on us to steer them through the complexities of issues like; what impact will Google's indexing of Twitter have on a website's SEO?
They also rely on us to help them build a social media strategy that has some strategy behind it. Not to simply follow everything and anyone on Twitter in the misunderstanding that volume of following is of any use - if it is not a targeted and relevant following.
And this takes us to another PR skill – that of crisis management. This is something we have many years of experience in at national, breaking news level. Knowing how to manage the media, the client and the communication of any information in a time of crisis is, to quote a noted credit card company, priceless.
Priceless because you have one opportunity to get it right and to save that client from untold damage through unconstrained information flow. Priceless because knowing how to manage a situation can sometimes save the client and also the media from reportage which has no gain for either organisation.
I was also reminded recently about how important our understanding of website and online communications is - as we were advising company directors on how to restructure their website to help engage with site visitors, the valuable adoption of rich media and other initiatives.
Also how e-newsletters can be used to communicate effectively with internal and external audiences, how intranet systems can be optimised – the list goes on…
We haven't even started on events and how they can be used to maximise coverage around a specific topic or launch an initiative, how press-release tie-ins with other organisations only work on rare occasions or the client is at risk of forever being associated in the second sense to another company or organisation. And that is damaging – imagine if your PR wasn't deemed strong enough to stand on its own two feet? How degrading is that..?
And let's not forget content provision, copy-writing, web-video, media management at events, interview sourcing, comment placement, trade media coverage, media training, research publishing, awards submissions…
This blog could easily become a list. So there it is in a nutshell – PR, whether it is in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, America, China – we cover it all and we cover all of it...