Fake News \ˈfāk\ \ˈnüz\ — Definition: Fabricated stories and lies with little or no basis in reality commonly propagated on social media channels. Often frustrating, sometimes comical, possibly dangerous and always a concern. Not to be confused with: News someone dislikes or disagrees with yet is based in verifiable fact – often bracketed by air quotes and used as an exclamation or accusation (“Fake News!”). See also: “Fake Media.”
The last election cycle introduced the term to main street America and mainstream media. And over the past six months, we have seen the term invoked as an insult as it has permeated the invective of both the current administration and its opposition. No one has been spared, from neighborhood institutions (see: Comet Ping Pong) to high-profile public figures (see: Hillary Clinton, Michael Flynn, Sally Yates, Jim Comey). Yet fake news, often masquerading under other names, has been around since the dawn of parchment and the printing press. Before the advent of social media, its most recent natural habitat was the grocery store checkout aisle tabloid. With fantastical, brash headlines, such stories elicited more laughs than boycotts.
We are now in a different era, where we prefer our Twitter and Facebook feeds to oversized tabloids. With the rise of social media and the financial incentives provided by search engines and networking platforms, fake news has a new lease on life – and poses a threat to institutions and individuals, both public and private. Running in parallel to this problem is reporting by “mainstream” outlets that turns innocuous facts into insidious headlines which catch fire with a significant portion of a customer base or electorate.
A current of distrust permeates these stories, a sentiment born out in survey after survey of public opinion. In all cases, the questions companies and institutions need to answer come down to audiences and credibility.
How does your company or institution prepare itself to handle fake news and, more to the point, frontal attacks on its reputation or its bottom line? How do you identify your own soft underbelly and areas of vulnerability? While recent fake news attacks have gone after individuals or institutions because of their political activity, this may simply be an evolution of what used to be rumor and innuendo, now feeding off the hyper-politicized climate in our country. How sharp are your institutional instincts and rapid response, fast-twitch crisis management muscles?
The first line of defense for a company or institution is to examine the scope of its public position on politically hot topics of the day. Every every public affairs, communications or marketing decision must be filtered through that lens. This does not mean a company or its leadership should not take a public position on a politically sensitive topic (bathroom laws, travel bans, for example), but rather it should have a keen sense of how that position will resonate with its key audiences: Employees, customers, shareholders, partners, policymakers.
The next step is to make sure you have the fundamentals of crisis communications nailed down. Do you have a plan, a team and a rapid response infrastructure in place?
The post-election discussion about the dangers of “fake news” has raised much-needed awareness of how false stories, and their rapid spread on social media, can distort our political process in powerful, unexpected ways. But what about the perilous impact fake news poses to brands and corporate reputation? Major brands have already experienced the all-too-real damage that fake news can inflict – and the considerable effort it takes to correct the record.
How should companies react when their brands, or the company itself, becomes the subject of fake news story – whether it denigrates the company leadership, raises fears about a product’s safety or quality or questions the company’s credibility? They must act swiftly and thoughtfully and consider the following actions:
Vigilant traditional and social media monitoring is a crucial first step to ensure emerging irregularities and threats are spotted quickly and tamped down before they catch fire on social media or are picked up by a heavily followed news outlet. Companies must deploy the right tools and resources to monitor online conversations about their brands in order to get early warning when false information is circulating. If your response to a viral fake news story is too slow, substantial damage to your business and stakeholder relations may occur before you are finally able to address it.
Assess the potential for harm
Assess the potential impact the fake news storyline can have on your business and stakeholder relationships should it increase in visibility or credibility. The level of response should be proportional to the potential harm. If the misinformation, while false, is not particularly harmful to your business, you may want to just watch carefully and take a responsive stance as needed. By overreacting and responding too strongly, you are likely to generate more attention to the false information.
Assemble your facts
Promptly assemble a strong factual case showing there is no truth to the story and share it, as needed, with key stakeholders, including inquiring media. However, make sure your facts are bulletproof; you may open yourself up to criticism – indeed, your own allegations of fake news – if your facts don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Deploy a consistent, measured response
While you do not have to answer every hostile tweet about a fake news story, you should respond proportionally across all communications channels – your Facebook page, customer letters, call centers, etc. You don’t need to go to war, but you should stand up for yourself and use consistent messaging across all channels to correct false accusations made in legitimate forums.
Prepare a holding statement and other communications materials – staff emails, executive talking points, stakeholder letters, etc. Your messages should be strategic, straightforward, sincere and not overly defensive. They should be intended to correct the record, clearly and unequivocally – and to alleviate concern. Tailor your communications materials to each key stakeholder, ensuring that any nuances carefully align to your overarching narrative and key messages. A misstatement by a company representative will only add to the fake news storm. If the fake news originated from a satirical site, you should still disavow it, but use the opportunity to demonstrate good sense and understanding; a robotic response will only prove that you – and, by extension, the brand – do not recognize the role of humor (everyone enjoys a good joke, after all).
Flood the zone with your story and the facts that back it up. Show that your institution is open to criticism and can stand on its record. This is the most effective way to undermine fake news accusations and disarm those who hide behind those accusations because they dislike what you or your institution stands for.
Don’t wait, plan now
Considering the real risk posed by fake news, you should have a crisis communications plan in place that prepares for such a scenario. A well-orchestrated, rapid response playbook saves crucial time and is well worth the investment.
While broad awareness, a healthier consumer skepticism and the promise of robust responses from social media companies may all help reduce the risk of fake news, it is unlikely to recede any time soon.However, having a plan and knowing what to do when it strikes your business or mission will play a big part in limiting its impact.
This post was contributed by Benjamin Chang, Managing Director, U.S. Public Affairs & Crisis Practice, and Tom Olson, Senior Director, U.S. Public Affairs & Crisis Practice.