Fake news is here to stay.
But that should not be a surprise. Fake news is not new. It has been around since the founding of our country. The likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all indulged in cooking up apocryphal content to advance the cause of the Revolution and even their respective political interests after our country’s founding.
What IS new is how fake news is now being used as a club to bludgeon brands for political positions they may or may not have actually endorsed. I say may or may not have because even if an executive at a major brand did support an idea popularized by a politician the actual facts could become so skewed by the ‘fake news engine’ that it no longer matters what the actual facts were. In today’s wired world, a reputation that takes years and decades to build can be significantly tarnished or permanently damaged in mere hours and days.
Public relations to the rescue
Public relations professionals who are savvy in the ways of digital media and marketing have become the emergency responders for a brand’s reputation. A brand that hesitates in its response to fake news does so at its own peril. Responses have to be swift, measured and proportionate to the degree of threat involved.
PR professionals are experienced communicators who run toward the crisis. They are experienced at assessing the level of public and media awareness, setting up teams to address brand messaging and strategically sharing timely news with media outlets to curb the damaging effects of a crisis.
As we explained in an earlier post about the crises faced by Samsung and Wells Fargo last year, brands must face their crisis head on by giving PR professionals a lead role in setting up the team that responds to reputational firestorm. Indeed, fighting a brand crisis is a lot like fighting a forest fire where many conditions beyond the control of the brand can shape the crisis and leave a lasting impact that could cost executive jobs, stock valuations and future growth potential.
More fake news crises coming soon?
Brands should already be adding fake news to their crisis plans. Unlike a fire at a company facility or a case of fraud, fake news is by its nature ephemeral. It doesn’t exist in the real world where individuals can be taken into account and a clean reckoning can be made to the public. It exists in a digital world that is impossible to corral and is fed by the very engine that makes the Internet profitable: click through advertising.
That’s right! Many fake news sites are peddling falsehoods simply to sell ads and make money. But is that really any different that the scourge of “Yellow Journalism” that cheapened the U.S. media landscape at the turn of the 20th century? Yes, if only because fake news sites are so easy to start, run and spread to poison the minds of readers against a brand. At least with Yellow Journalism the U.S. media eventually reacted to scurrilous journalism by instituting a professional code of ethics and cleaning up the profession by raising the educational requirements of future journalists at colleges and universities.
Brands must brace themselves for more cases of fake news. By building a crisis plan to combat fake news, you ensure that proper controls are in place to limit financial damage and long-lasting impact to brand reputation. Fake news, after all, doesn’t have to be based on reality or a real-world event. It can be started by a fringe political group that perceives your brand as too liberal, conservative or even non-committal. It can be started by an ethically-challenged competitor intent on stealing market share from you.