5 Ways to Battle Fake News and Maintain Brand Integrity

burning newspaper
burning newspaper

What is Fake News?

Fake news. The term has become almost overused this past year, as stories from less than legitimate news sources ran rampant during the 2016 presidential election.

How is fake news defined? “The word fake means not genuine—a forgery or a counterfeit. It implies an intent to deceive,” says a recent Slate article. It’s used to describe unsubstantiated stories or media sources.

Add to that Oxford Dictionaries word of the year, “post-truth,” an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

All this has the heads of many in PR spinning. Because we work with reporters on a regular basis (some of us even went to Journalism school), it’s difficult to see these false stories taking precedence over those of respected news sources.

It also brings up an important question for those in the public relations profession. Fake news reduces the public’s trust in the media, in turn affecting what we do as PR pros. If the public doesn’t trust the media, then what good does it do to secure earned media placements for clients? No trust equals no value.

“The Power Of News Has Never Been Stronger”

A recent survey by Ketchum discovered that of those questioned, 86% said that effective communication is an extremely important part of effective leadership. The top-ranking attribute for effective leadership is “leading by example” with 78%, next is “communicating in an open and transparent way” at 76% and also very important at 75% is “aligning what you say with what you actually do”. Interestingly, attributes that have dropped in the rankings is the use of influential language and telling compelling stories about your brand – this year, people want to see action and implementation.

The reality of the world we’re living in is that the power of news has never been stronger – even when it's wrong, or fake. Wrong news is the result of inaccuracies, a lack of proof-reading and fact-checking. But fake news is the complete fabrication and intentional misrepresentation of news stories to serve a social, political or financial agenda – that is, deliberate misinformation or propaganda created to deceive readers by disguising it as authentic news.

Because fake news is becoming so common, it’s the perfect recipe for potential brand reputation damage. Having a crisis plan in place is vital – a plan will assist with navigating stormy seas, whether the storm is real or fake.

How Can Fake News Impact My Brand? 

Reputation Management 

Have you fallen victim to fake news? Chances are you have, but you don’t know about it. The topic of protecting your brand reputation is a critical one, especially in today’s world where even the smallest wrongdoing is sprawled across headlines and retweeted far and wide. In addition to the public eye, the company’s stakeholders are also keeping a close watch on their investments – and corporate reputation is at the top of the priority list. According to a recent KPMG survey, operational and brand reputational risk has become CEO’s biggest concern, despite neither category featuring in the 2016 Top 10 list. This illustrates just how important brand reputation management has become – especially in recent times, 2017 being the height of fake news epidemic and 2018 seeing plans in place to prevent the spreading of this bad practice.

“If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.” – Warren Buffet.

Managing Fake News

When it comes to managing fake news, first, we ought not to panic. Public relations practitioners have long battled the issue of rumors or outright lies circulating about the clients or the brands we represent. While fake news has taken on a life of its own in recent months, it shouldn’t change our fundamental approach to our work.

“Stories, whether true or false, can go viral. Once that happens, it’s hard to stop the momentum,” said Martin Waxman, President, Martin Waxman Communications and social media professor. “But we in PR are trained to handle issues and crises, and that’s the approach we should take when fake news threatens our organization’s reputation.”

reputation management laptop

5 Steps to Managing Fake News

Here are 5 practical ways PR professionals can battle fake news in their day-to-day roles:

1. Build a community of loyal fans and followers:

Fostering a community of fans can help your brand in many ways. One important benefit is that, if you consistently nurture it, it will be there for you if you need it.

“One way to prepare for the possibility of fake news about your company is to build a community before you need it,” says Waxman. “If you have loyal followers and fans, they’ll speak up on your behalf. If a brand tries to go on the defensive, it can sometimes have the opposite effect, but if a brand’s community defends it, it’s much more credible.”

2. Plan ahead for the worst:

Planning is key to combatting fake news, as with any crisis. Add the scenario of false stories appearing about your brand or executives to your crisis preparedness plan. Be ready to wallop social media to fight back and influence public opinion in your favour, should someone attack your brand or CEO. Using a media monitoring platform can help by notifying you whenever your brand is mentioned so you can immediately respond if necessary.

3. Verify and fact check:

Of course, PR pros understand the importance of verifying and fact-checking their work. The approach to a press release (or any piece of content) should be the same—don’t make claims you can’t back up.

4. Work with reputable outlets and journalists:

While there may be more disreputable media outlets than there used to be, there are still plenty of reliable ones out there. Be sure to work with reporters and publications who have a reputation for and value their status as trusted truth-tellers.

5. Encourage audiences to vet what they share — and to share from reputable sources only:

Whenever possible, encourage your audience to look closely before sharing news stories. And don’t share fake news yourself. “Look at a piece of content critically,” says Waxman. “Analytically approach media sources to identify which stories you should share.”

If we do our best to ensure we’re not part of the fake news epidemic by adhering to high standards and preparing in advance for the worst, we can help stop fabricated stories from taking over—and help our profession keep its credibility.

What To Do & What Not Do When a Crisis Hits 

Containing a crisis in the digital age we’re in is a challenge. More than one-quarter of crises spread to international media within an hour and over two thirds within 24 hours, to an average of 11 countries. Despite 6 out of 10 cases providing days or months of notice, it still takes an average of 21 hours for companies to respond, leaving them open to “trial by Twitter.”

Most importantly, and most frightening, one year later, 53% of companies had not seen share prices regain pre-crisis levels.

“Understanding the data is such an important part of getting ahead of any situation” – Evan Pickworth, Media Director at Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants

When a crisis hits, and you’ve established it’s not just an issue but needs to be dealt with swiftly to avoid severe damage, it’s best to have a plan in place so that you can react without hesitation and put out the flames before they spread. Here’s an example timeline of how to react to a crisis:

  • Within 5 minutes: Start Alert Process
  • 10 minutes: Define responsible person for communication tasks
  • 20 minutes: Inform employees, key stakeholders
  • < 60 minutes: Distribution of media release #1, respond to social media
  • 60 minutes: Set up media hotline, digital platforms
  • < 120 minutes: Distribution of media release #2
  • If it cannot be avoided, a statement to the journalist on-site.
business man tiping on smartphone

How To Keep Your Wits About You – Crisis Do’s

  • Only provide information that is authorised for publication and broadcast.
  • If in doubt, check with your PR consultant or your organisation’s CEO.
  • Obtain any additional information only from a qualified person.
  • Avoid speculation on any aspect of the incident.
  • If asked, give your name. Be polite, be as helpful as possible, and stay calm.
  • Log all questions together with the name of the journalist, the media represented, the time of the call and contact number, and ensure you give a time you will call back.
  • Listen to stakeholders.
  • Keep employees informed, including junior staff – communicate how they should act, what they should or shouldn’t be doing in this time of crisis.
  • Assume everything you say to journalists is fit for print or broadcast. Nothing is “off-the-record.”

It was a breath of fresh air when AdvTech responded swiftly and clearly to what could have been a major crisis. The massive educational company was shocked with accusations of fraud – the market hit them and their share price began to drop.

  • Before long, the AdvTech CEO, Roy Douglas, had gathered the correct information and spoken out about it. He said that a financial manager who had been with the group since 2014 had allegedly inflated revenue and understated costs through a number of transactions and embezzled the money. The discovery of fraud in any company is never welcomed. But the fact that Roy Douglas and AdvTech were able to act quickly, and provide the right details, figures, and updates, allows for very little chance of speculation, fake news, and brand reputation damage.

What Not To Do When Disaster Hits – Crisis Don’ts

  • Try to keep the media away.
  • Say “no comment.”
  • Admit liability or answer questions if you don’t have the correct information.
  • Lie or tell half-truths.
  • Give out any information on an “off-the-record” basis.
  • Give out any unauthorised information.
  • Speculate on causes – it could lead to legal implications.
  • Use technical jargon.
  • Shift the blame or lose your temper.
  • Take the phone off the hook or bury your head in the sand.

No company is immune to the risk of crisis – in fact, it’s impossible to be in business without it. All that is required, however, is to manage it efficiently. To find out more about how media intelligence can help you catch fires before they spread, contact us via the form today.