How brands can safeguard their reputation in a post-truth era

Years ago, I had a Homer Simpson #doh moment when I fell for, and re-shared, some inane Facebook post warning people of something dire and technology related. This post had been passed around my school friends like some kind of doomsday chain letter.

Of course, the second I shared it, the only tech genius I knew felt the need to post a reply detailing how and why I was a premium grade prat for believing said hogwash (even though I was mainly sharing the post out of a misguided sense of social obligation, it’s just something we did back then).

These spam posts, old-wives tales and urban legends have recently found new life. They’ve been re-branded. They’ve graduated from “5 signs that your PC is being controlled by a man in Moscow” to “Oops, your government is being controlled by a man in Moscow”. This is fake news. Welcome to the post-truth era.

It’s nothing new

Let’s be honest, the term “fake news” has been made popular in the past six months, but it’s always been around. Society has always featured propaganda – you can probably find it in cave paintings.

People love to exaggerate – to create drama – especially if it benefits them in some way. Certain websites benefit from fake news. It’s notoriously clickbaity and sites can make thousands in ad revenue by hosting the content. Why wouldn’t people take advantage of this?

It has an impact

2016 demonstrated that fake news can swiftly be adopted as fact by millions of people. Denials or clarification can be painted as a cover-up and you end up in a situation where the lie becomes more authentic than the facts.

Fake news can have a social, political and economic impact.

French construction firm, Vinci, found this out the hard way. A press release was distributed in November 2016. Bloomberg published news that the firm would be restating its accounts and firing its CFO.

But it wasn’t true. The press release was fake.

Share value dropped by more than 18% on the news, rising back to a four percent drop by the end of the day (after the firm had issued its denial).

How are brands supposed to defend themselves against these sorts of attacks? Is there a way to prevent them?

Prevention and response

Brands can’t prevent people from creating and sharing fake news, but they can ensure that the brand has built up a solid foundation of goodwill and trust prior to an incident taking place by focusing on:

  • Transparency and trust. If the brand is open an honest about most things people will be more inclined to believe them when faced with fabricated news about the brand.
    Establish the facts. If and when the brand does fall victim to fake news, the comms team needs to establish the facts quickly. There should be an escalation procedure and out of hours contact numbers for senior team members.
  • Clear, non defensive, communication. People may be sharing the “news” because they believe it’s genuine, not out of malice. A statement of denial, setting the facts straight, should be all that’s needed.
  • Tone of voice needs to be calm. The fake news may be having an impact on reputation and/or share value. Customers may be second-guessing whether they should shop with the brand in future. If the social media team goes into a panic when trying to play down the speculation, it will only make things worse. Tone of voice needs to be calm and measured, even if the customer community is in a panic.
  • What’s the cause? What were the origins of the story? Was it a competitor? A disgruntled ex-employee? Maybe it was a campaign group. Unless the story originated from a website that simply churns fake news out for a living, there’s probably something that the brand can learn from the situation. Are there any issues that need to be addressed to prevent this from happening in the future?

We may be living in a post-truth era, a time when people are more likely to trust social media and search engines over traditional media and brands, but business and organisations have always had to deal with misrepresentation. It’s just easier for fake news to go viral now, and brands need to be equipped to respond rapidly and decisively.

Gemma is Polpeo’s Content Specialist. She develops the crisis storylines and writes social content for Polpeo. She is the principal voice of Polpeo on Twitter, and blogs on PR Examples and carrotcomms.co.uk/blog.

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