Ethical Implications of Fake News for PR Professionals

Lesson 1: Lesson Plan

Public relations practitioners disseminate client information in earned, owned, and paid media. Ethically, responsibility lies in the creation of accurate information with honesty and good intent. However, as with the case of native advertising, the roles public relations, advertising, and marketing are merged. Native advertising also blurs the line between editorial and paid content. With this tactic, the content sponsor pays the publisher to distribute information in a platform that resembles the publication’s content in format and substance. Lesson 1 explores the concept of native advertising, discusses the identification of native advertising in all its forms, and provides understanding of the role native advertising plays for different entities. Lesson 1 discusses the TARES test as a tool for ethical decision making and offers a native advertising case study.

Key Concepts

Students should:

Lesson 2: Lesson Plan

Lesson 2 focuses on the various types of “fake” in “fake news.” Providing examples of past fake news occurrences, this lesson looks at the fake news and considers the public relations professionals’ response to the false information. Lesson 2 discusses the difference between misleading content, false connection, imposter sources, manipulated content, and full fabrication. A case study investigates the dissemination of fake news and asks participants to consider courses of action, consequences, and moral reasoning. In addressing the consideration of fake news for public relations professionals, Lesson 2 asks students to apply The Page Principles and the PRSA Code of Ethics. It also offers tips for public relations practitioners to avoid and manage fake news.

Key Concepts

Students should:


Module Overview

News stories reported that “Trump’s grandfather was a pimp and tax evader; his father was a member of the KKK.” They also reported of “Nancy Pelosi diverting Social Security money for the impeachment inquiry.” However, neither of the stories are true.

Yet, they provided the basis for the top two, fake news stories on Facebook in 2019. According to an Avaaz report, the top 100 fake news stories in 2019 were viewed more than 150 million times. In turn, this false information could have reached every registered voter at least once (Gilbert, 2019).

Fake news impacts both media trust and credibility. Fake news is defined as content that is intentionally misleading, sensationalized, or deliberately false (Fullerton, McKinnon, and Kendrick, 2020).

The convergence of media and the ease of sharing on social networks allows for quick dissemination of both truthful and false information. For public relations professionals, both the way we shape clients’ messages and how we respond to mediated messages contribute to the public conversation.

Not only is fake news in itself troubling, but the public also contributes to its dissemination.

Silverman (2016) reports that the “Top 20 Fake News” stories of 2016 received more engagement than the “Top 20 Legitimate News” stories that year.

In fact, individuals often share fake news story via their social media outlets. Wyatt (2006) suggests that an understanding of media literacy can serve as a trust builder. For strategic communicators, media literacy is important for both analyzing media content and for creating PR messages, advertising copy, audio and video content, and multimedia applications.

In the fake news environment, PR practitioners can help the public distinguish between truthful and misleading content. The Page Principle “Conduct public relations like the whole organization depends on it” places emphasis on the managerial function of public relations. Practitioners must work to express stakeholder views, values, experience, expectations and aspirations.

As content creators, practitioners are responsible for information disseminated in earned, owned, and paid media. With fake news, the original source of the message is difficult to determine.  Sponsored posts, personal blogs, lack of bylines, promoted content, self-publication and the use of native advertising allows for content to mimic traditional news.

Sensationalized headlines and click-bait often lead to stories that earn advertising revenue. Ethically, PR practitioners should consider the content they are distributing and its transparency. The Page Principle “Tell the Truth” calls for the creation of accurate information with honesty and good intent.

There also are important ethical implications for practitioners to consider when their client is the target of a fake news story. First, the level of truth/falseness must be considered. Next, practitioners must develop a strategic response to combat the misinformation.

As practitioners, we must “Prove It with Action.” This Page Principle tells us the organization is judged based on 90 percent of what it does and on 10 percent of what it says. In a fake news environment, practitioners should “Remain Calm, Patient, and Good Humored.” Client response to a fake news crisis, provides the groundwork for reasoned attention to information from stakeholders and for shaping the public conversation with accurate information.

Citations & Resources

Module 12, Introduction References

Gilbert (6 Nov. 2019). The 10 most-viewed fake-news stories on Facebook in 2019 were just revealed in a new report. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Fullerton, J. A., McKinnon, L. M. & Kendrick, A. (2020). Media literacy among public relations students: An analysis of future PR professionals in the post-truth era. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 1-25.

The Page Principles. The Arthur W. Page Center: For Integrity in Public Communication. Retrieved from

Silverman,C. (2016, Nov. 16). This analysis shows how viral fake election news stories outperformed real news on Facebook. Buzz Feed News. Retrieved from

Wyatt, W. N. (2006). Media literacy as a trust builder: How media education can foster critical and sympathetic news audiences. Paper presented at the association for journalism and mass communication, San Francisco, CA.

Module 12, Lesson 1 References

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Module Developer

Lori McKinnon

Dr. Lori McKinnon

Associate Professor, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma State University

Lori Melton McKinnon is an associate professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. Her research focuses on media ethics education for public relations and advertising students. McKinnon’s research in political communication also looks at ethical applications. She is especially interested in the mediated effects of political campaign communication. McKinnon has published dozens of academic journal articles on the topics of national and international political advertising, political public relations, political adwatches, and presidential debate coverage Additionally, she has published numerous book chapters on various topics in political communication and a book on the 1996 Romanian presidential election. McKinnon collaborates with other university scholars to study presidential elections.

Diana Haslett

Diana Haslett

Master's student, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma State University

Diana Haslett received her bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in electronic communication from the University of Oklahoma. After a few years working at a broadcast news station she began working with a public-school system teaching broadcast and media literacy courses. She adjuncts at a local technical school and teaches professional development courses for Oklahoma educators. Diana is currently completing a master’s degree in Mass Communication from Oklahoma State University. Her research interests include media ethics and media literacy.

Julianne Thomison

Julianne Thomison

Graduate research assistant, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma State University

Julianne Thomison graduated from Oklahoma City University magna cum laude in three years, earning a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting and a double minor in Theater and Chinese. After graduation, she moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma and now works as a graduate research assistant for the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University. She is also pursuing a Master of Science in Mass Communication. Her research interests include: anti-texting and driving initiatives, pop culture and political influencers, and broadcast television.

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