People sitting within the Plank Center.

PR Pros Observe ‘Fake News’ Debate, Lack Strategies to Manage It

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Concerns over “fake news” remain beneath levels necessitating communication strategies to counter them, according to public relations professionals surveyed by a University of Alabama center.

The UA Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ survey of more than 1,000 communication professionals in the U.S. and Canada found building and maintaining trust is the most crucial issue facing the profession, and while the communicators were aware of the debates over fake news, few organizations are attempting to detect and manage it.

“Our goal with this study was to assess the state of the public relations field in North America and identify gaps or opportunities to enrich the development of communication leaders,” said Dr. Karla Gower, director of UA’s Plank Center. “If we know where the gaps are, we can work to close them and to strengthen the overall quality of our profession’s leadership—a crucial strategic asset.”

Survey responses came from 1,020 communication professionals working in a variety of organizations within Canada and the United States.

Communication professionals agreed fake news is among the most prominent issues in public discourse. More than half of surveyed professionals, 57.7%, give attention to the on-going debate about fake news, and 68.2% consider it a much-debated topic in their country. Governmental organizations across North America are particularly affected by fake news, with 20.9% of respondents affected multiple times and 10.1% affected once.

However, despite high levels of awareness and attention, the level of relevance of fake news to the professionals’ daily work, and their concerns about it, are generally low. When it comes to identifying potential fake news, 42.6% of respondents said their organizations mainly rely on individual competencies and experience. Few organizations have in place policies, technical systems and processes to detect and manage fake news and misinformation.

Fake news was labeled by “Collins Dictionary” as a Word of the Year in 2017. It defines the term as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” The term can sometimes be used as an attempt to discredit legitimate news. President Donald Trump helped popularize the term during and after his presidential campaign.

The survey, known as the North American Communication Monitor, joins existing monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific, in exploring topics such as the top issues for the PR profession in the next three years, the professionals’ trust in their organizations, job satisfaction, work stress, and social media skills.

Other study highlights included:

  • Top communication leaders are involved in organizational decision making, but that power is not shared with those lower in the hierarchy, especially women.
  • The major threat to job engagement is a lack of performance feedback and recognition, with a significant gender gap.
  • Everyone is stressed, but the sources of work stress vary.
  • Women and men rate their social media and knowledge management skills differently.

“The North American Communication Monitor provides statistically reliable data to demonstrate professionals’ opinions and concerns and uses a nearly identical survey instrument as do the European, Latin American, and Asia-Pacific Communication Monitors,” said Dr. Bryan H. Reber, a professor at the University of Georgia and the lead researcher of the study. “As a result, we are able to compare more than 6,000 responses across regions and cultures, the largest global data set for our profession.”

To download and read the report, visit the Plank Center’s website.

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading international resource working to support students, educators and practitioners who are passionate about the public relations profession by developing and recognizing outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors. Founded in 2005, the Center is named in honor of Betsy Plank, the “First Lady” of PR. Betsy’s legacy and vision continues on in the Center’s programs and initiatives to advance the profession and public relations education. For more information, please visit


Jessika White,, 205-348-7250; UA communications, 205-348-5320