The Growing Ethical Threat of Disinformation: Ann Knabe, APR+M

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ann Knabe, PhD, APR+ M. Ann is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, with more than 25 years of experience in military public affairs, national security and international settings. On the civilian side she owns a consulting firm in Milwaukee Wisconsin. And this year she’s the chair of the Universal Accreditation Board, the international governing body that manages the Accreditation in Public Relations credential.

Ann discusses:

Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I’ll touch on the military side of the house first. I would say it’s been punctuated with a lot of interesting experiences ranging from deployments overseas, to work at the Pentagon, to leading the public affairs for the Guantanamo Bay war court. I’ve dealt with plane crashes, environmental concerns, personnel, HR crises, and just a whole litany of emerging issues.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been in the Air Force Reserve as an emergency preparedness liaison officer, where I liaise or connect between FEMA and United States Air Force. That’s just a whole fascinating area to work in when it comes to national security and emergency response. There are nonstop opportunities including critical infrastructure, election, national security issue and emergency preparedness.

I serve on the Universal Accreditation Board, charing it this year. I also do a lot of volunteer work in the veterans’ community, the PRSA and the National Association of Government Communicators.

You’re active in a lot of organizations and you touch on everything, as you said, from Guantanamo Bay to elections to crisis to the UAB. What do you consider to be one of the most important ethics issues facing the PR industry today and tomorrow?

Something that’s been on my mind since the first of the year is the concept of disinformation. What really got me fired up, or bristled me I guess is probably a better word, is we are talking about disinformation and the writers are associating it with public relations… having it in the same paragraph or sentence. One article from a national outlet had a headline that said, “Disinformation for hire. How a new breed of PR firms is selling lies online.” Another article called this whole rise of disinformation, black PR. And it just really got under my skin, really bothered me, because that’s not how I perceive our profession.

The other thing is, I’m trying to be really clear when I’m saying “dis”, with a D. Disinformation, and differentiating that from misinformation, with an M. Disinformation is false information, it is intended to mislead. And thinking almost like the lines of propaganda this disinformation would be very deliberate, very purposeful. It is deception to distribute untrue material that’s really intended to influence public opinion. If you’re looking at misinformation, with an M, that’s a little different. Someone can actually be spreading misinformation quite innocently by saying or writing things that are untrue, because they believe them and they’re misinformed. An example might be someone sharing a news story on social media, and the source turns out to be unreliable or something like that. So really it comes down to intent, the disinformation, the deception and the intent.

Is this a new phenomenon in your opinion?

It is not necessarily new but we’re hearing a lot more about it. Disinformation certainly has become easier to spread with social media at our fingertips. But disinformation is rooted in the Russian term dezinformatsiya. Looking back as the 1920s, the Soviet Union was using fake or false information as a weapon. Later, we saw it pop-up during the Cold War, with disinformation campaigns. But here in the last couple of years, where I’ve really observed this is the spread of fake news on social media, with that very deliberate intent of being deceptive, often linked to a strategy or a negative political campaigning. Another aspect of this is the rise of automated and artificial intelligence, fake social media accounts, fake news sites. And these AI, artificial intelligence can now get even more traffic generated much quicker than even a human could.

The sad part about it is a lot of these sophisticated technologies are being used to target real people. And they’re using the sophisticated algorithms of Facebook and other social media, that initially were very good things, but now can be used in a very nefarious way. I’m sure that you’ve heard that essentially these algorithms are affecting what shows up on your feeds on Facebook for instance… and this can be used to manipulate vulnerable people.

The term I always heard is maskirovka. But you’re right, you’re seeing the tools are amplifying the spread of disinformation.

Let me share a real-world example. Recently I read an article on CNN about how Facebook, Twitter and Google are currently trying to stay ahead of the disinformation campaigns that are being posted about the Coronavirus. And this is anything from conspiracy theories to fake cure. It’s very difficult to stay ahead of this. It’s almost nearly impossible.

But I would argue… or insist…I would not give the firms doing this the credit of being a public relations firm. The firms that are engaging in this type of disinformation, certainly aren’t PR firms at all. It’s contrary to what our profession stands for and it’s contrary to the PRSA code of ethics.

I interviewed Craig Silverman, who wrote that article on the rise of disinformation for hire.  The reporter’s response was if you go to their websites, they say they’re PR firms. And he’s like, “I understand that people in public relations don’t like it, but I’m taking the job description that they are giving themselves on the websites and that is why he called them PR firms.

I find it offensive! It’s offensive!

It is. I can call myself a superstar basketball or baseball player and I’m not a superstar basketball or baseball player, and nobody would describe me that way.

Yeah, exactly.

How should we be preparing to fight the growing flood of disinformation and negative operations that are probably becoming even easier to do?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s incumbent upon public relations practitioners to help professionalize the field of PR. And this conversation has been going on for more than 50 years. And that’s really how things like accreditation and PR started out. It’s about the professionalization of the field. If you think of other professions, for example, a physician, an attorney, they’re required adhere to a code of ethics. And in our field of public relations there’s a number of different codes, probably best known is the PRSA code of ethics, but they’re not necessarily enforceable. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most PR practitioners don’t even know a code of ethics exists, or in my case a PRSA code of ethics.

Back when I started in PR more than 30 years ago, I was vaguely aware of the code of ethics, maybe from PRSSA or something like that. I certainly knew about, interestingly enough, the Society of Professional Journalists, code of ethics.

Fast forward five years out of college, I was really starting to get into my professional career and decided to earn my Accreditation in PR. And part of that… earning that credential includes memorizing, understanding and really internalizing the code of ethics. And that really put it in the forefront of my mind. But the fact of the matter is not everybody’s out there studying codes of ethics or going for accreditation.

It’s kind of interesting to note too, PRSA, within their membership criteria requires members to follow the code of ethics. They could actually be kicked out of the Society, expelled if they don’t comply with the code. PRSA goes so far to say that the ethical practice is most important obligation of a PRSA member.

But that goes back to your question… what do we do with this in the field? Not everyone belongs to PRSA. Not everyone in PRSA knows there’s a code of ethics. I wish they did. And you can walk out of a college with a degree in public relations and not really have had an ethical discussion. So I think one of the things is to really start infusing ethics into the curriculum at the college level. So, people are very aware.

The other thing that I’ve been mulling around in my head over the last couple of days. I’ve got a teenager and I remember as early as junior high, they were already talking about credibility of sources and things like that on the internet. Is this a credible website? Is it not? And I almost wonder if our teaching institutions, parents and families, need to step up their game on educating our youth about disinformation. It exists out there. So not just what’s credible for your book report or whatever… a research paper… but also this awareness of the fake news out there, of people doing the various things to push their agendas in a very deliberate way that manipulates people.

I have the discussion with a number of young folks, that the internet is not a source and neither is Wikipedia or Reddit. We had one case recently with one young man, He was reading a treatise on Reddit about some of the issues of capitalism. I asked where he saw it. “Reddit.” And I said “Give me a better citation. And he ended up that it was sourced by the New York times, which is great. And I’m like, “Well, who wrote it?” And he’s like, “Theodore Kaczynski.” And my head almost exploded because I knew who it was… but he didn’t understand that it was the Unabomber. So, you really need to look at the source behind what’s going on.

And also, what that hidden agenda could be. It’s a slippery slope for people that are working in profit based industries, whether it is marketing or public relations. When you’re working for a client or you’re trying to advance an issue or agenda. People could easily go down that negative path of disinformation.

Now I want to circle back in a couple things you said that I think are really important. One talked about how we have to all fight it and there’s the lack of enforceability. PRCA has been taking a stand. They kicked out Bell Pottinger. Do you believe as an industry, do we need to really start looking at licensing? Or do we need to start looking at just more active enforcement against members that aren’t behaving up to the code?

It’s really interesting you would ask that question about licensing. I was chatting with a colleague of mine from Puerto Rico who is Accredited in PR, and Puerto Rico does require licenser of public relations practitioners. And I asked him, “Can somebody lose their license if they’re doing unethical things?” And he said, “Absolutely.” And it has happened. However, having said that, it’s difficult. Our industry is somewhat difficult to hold the requirements of a license. Unlike, very clear position where you have a license to practice. We are a little bit fuzzier. You have people working part time out of their homes, people doing volunteer work. You have major organizations, major agencies, corporate communicators.  So, I’m not really sure what that answer is and I’m sure there would be resistance from practitioners.

One way to address it within people, organizations and groups is to really start that chatter about the code of ethics and really digging in to what it says. From an advocacy perspective we are providing a voice, a net marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints for informed public to debate.

Honesty, adhering to the highest standards of accuracy and truth and the free flow of accurate and truthful information. I think if nothing else, a starting point is to start talking about the code of ethics, integrating it into our conversations, and of course I’m going to push accreditation, because I myself really didn’t dig into that Code until I was trying to become accredited.

Tell us more about accreditation. I’m an APR, I’ve been one for many a year, and I’m a Fellow now as well. But really, why in your mind would folks want to get accredited?

I think it really elevates an individual to a strategic mindset. For me personally, it pushed me away from that tactical level of writing press releases, putting together newsletters, talking to reporters and things like that… And pushed me into focus of being more strategic, looking at things like measurable results, meaningful results. What does success mean? Is it just getting an article published? No, not necessarily. Are we changing minds? Are we changing opinions? Are we changing behaviors? So it’s really not focusing on output, but focusing on that target audience, and what effects do you want to have. And I can clearly see in my life, after and through the process of accreditation, it moved me to a different type of thinking. It’s very valuable.

And if people want to get accredited, where can they get more information?

They can visit for additional information. It’s accessible to all PR practitioners, although we recommend, they have five years under the belt before they really start digging into the process.

Do you think the industry can ever overcome the stigma of some of the inappropriate activities that were done in the early 1900s?

Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that we are leaps and bounds ahead of that. Even in my lifetime, I don’t the term “PR flack” as often. Our field is constantly maturing. Are we going to ever hit the pinnacle … not necessarily. But I see us as evolving and maturing. It’s conversations like this that keep us professionalizing the field. And of course, that’s balanced against the technology, such as artificial intelligence, the fake news and the proliferation of disinformation online, that makes it two steps forward, one step back.

What is the best piece of ethical advice you ever received?

It’s along the lines of integrity. I hate to bring up the Air Force again, but the Air Force core values… service before self, excellence in all you do. But then the most important one is integrity. It’s so simple. It’s doing the right thing even when no one else is looking. And that applies on so many levels, not just directly to our field of public relations and public affairs and external communication… but in life in general and people you manage, even if you’re not in PR. Integrity and doing the right thing is so important.

I think that’s great advice. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to discuss?

It’s important more than ever now, that we emphasize ethics. One way is the continued professionalization of the field. Accreditation is one way to add visibility in one’s own brand of ethics, but we must integrate it into our conversation and our practices. As technology advances at a dizzying rate… we’re bound to experience even more challenges, so be on guard and be aware and carry on.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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