In today’s world where fake news stories spread false information about people and companies for the sake of driving website traffic or pushing a particular political agenda, the role of public relations has become increasingly vital. In order to protect the reputations of those who are being made victims to the fake news epidemic, immediate preventative and reactive steps must be taken.
Pepsico is a shining example of the effects that fake news can have. According to CBS News, Trump supporters vowed to boycott all Pepsico products due to the CEO, Indra Nooyi, supposedly telling those who supported the candidate to “take their business elsewhere”. While these reports were false, Pepsico still experienced a drastic drop in their stock value; there’s a reasonable indication that the Trump supporter boycott had an impact on that.
It is essential that companies are equipped to defend their reputation at any time, even if they aren’t a global brand. The reactions to the fake news must be timely, accurate and proportionate to the threat at hand. It’s also important to proactively market yourself and gain a cushion of goodwill. Here’s what you should be doing to protect your brand from damage in the case of fake news, and defend yourself if your brand falls victim to it.
In the case of fake news coming out against your brand, you must respond in a timely manner or risk losing control of the narrative and damage to your brand credibility. The initial response should be immediate, even within the first hour of a fake news story surfacing and getting traction in social media. Waiting much longer to gather your company’s key stakeholder groups — marketing, corporate communications, legal — could allow fake news enough time to take root in the public consciousness and begin cycling through social media channels. You owe it your customers, investors and employees to act immediately and decisively in today’s 24/7 news cycle where rumor and fact can intermingle.
While a timely response is always important, what’s equally important is ensuring that your responses are accurate. Any facts you use to refute the fake news should come from verifiable, reputable sources that will stand up to the scrutiny of both the media and key stakeholders. While taking the “high road” is always a must when responding to a fake news event, it doesn’t mean you have to keep your hands tied behind your back either. You are defending your brand and reputation, after all, so going on the offensive to protect your interests while at the same time calling into question the legitimacy of the fake news source is completely acceptable.
When responding to fake news, consider the proportion of your reaction. How far has the news spread? Is it surfacing on a marginal online publication frequented by conspiracy theorists or is it in a well-known media outlet? Are you seeing any negative impact to your brand in the form of negative reviews or calls for boycotts?
Calling a press conference or issuing a statement for a thinly spread or non-threatening rumor could only serve to spread the rumor further. If, however, social media channels are buzzing about how terrible your company is for some unfounded acts or positions it never took then the best way forward is to mobilize your company’s resources and start addressing the fake news everywhere practicable.
Do you have to respond to every nasty tweet or Facebook post? No, but don’t allow them to go unanswered either without a measured response. Look for ways to talk directly to your customers as keeping their trust is critical and they can, in turn, become your most passionate defenders.
Stay on message
A company’s response must be strategic, taking into consideration the potential for damage to the brand’s reputation and even its revenue and stock value. While the need for a speedy response is paramount, as mentioned earlier, it’s critical the key message be well crafted. The message can and should refute the fake news but do so in a sincere way that can be customized to the needs of key stakeholders like customers, employees and investors
A company should ensure the message gets into the hands of each employee with responsibility over an outbound communication channel such as social media, press relations, investor relations, etc.
A company responding to a fake news event can even rely upon its crisis communications strategy and go into crisis mode in order to design and deploy the right message to the right channel as quickly as possible. Finally, ensure the message gets into the hands of the C-suite as you don’t want your CEO to fall into a trap during a TV interview about a different topic by saying something off-message that adds fuel to the fake news fire.
Perhaps the best way to protect yourself from the potential damage fake news can cause is to work proactively to build goodwill among your customers, employees and investors. In other words, look for ways to be open, honest and helpful with your key stakeholders.
While fake news is designed to malign your brand and cause significant damage, having a loyal customer following on social media will prove to be a powerful firewall against inflammatory fake news.
About Kris Bushong: Kris is an intern at Manzer Communications. With offices in Austin and Denver offering digital marketing communications and PR to tech startups and fast-growth enterprises, Manzer Communications is a leader in designing effective lead-gen campaigns that help companies reach their strategic growth goals. Kris is also a student at Texas State University and a participant in the PRSA Bateman Case Study Competition.