Fake news on social media stymied the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Now, businesses are wondering what they should do if theyâ€™re targeted next.
For some, itâ€™s too late. Pepsiâ€™s chief executive never told Trump supporters to â€œtake their business elsewhere,â€ but websites still falsely claimed she did. Coca-Cola had to deal with bogus reports that a â€œclear parasiteâ€ in Dasani bottled water had sent hundreds to the hospital. And in December, a 28-year-old man drove six hours to a Washington, DC, pizza parlor and fired a rifle after reading fake news claiming that Hillary Clinton was leading a child sex slavery operation there.
The threat has corporate executives rattled. â€œA lot of companies are trying to figure out how to respond if theyâ€™re targeted,â€ said Peter Duda, head of the global crisis and issues practice at the communications firm Weber Shandwick, which is leading an initiative that will bring media and marketing-industry stakeholders together to discuss how to fight fake news.
Meanwhile, the countryâ€™s professional society of public relations practitioners, the Public Relations Society of America, asked me to deliver the keynote speech at their upcoming regional conference on how practitioners can prepare for and respond to such attacks. PRSA members are nervous their companies could become the next targets.
Hereâ€™s how companies can plan for and address possible fake news about their businesses:
1. Communicate values in advance
Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwickâ€™s chief reputation strategist, says itâ€™s critical for businesses to communicate their values ahead of time, so they have a record to point to if they need to defend themselves. â€œThe time to start this isnâ€™t when youâ€™re under attack,â€ she said.
2. Use employees as advocates
Gaines-Ross recommends communicating these values internally as well as externally, because when a company is criticized, people often turn to employees for information. â€œMost people believe ordinary employees before theyâ€™ll believe a very senior officer of a company,â€ she said. â€œThey turn to people they know from Little League or PTA meetings or at the register at the local market. So inform employees and count on them to be advocates. Employees know whatâ€™s going on, and they will rally to defend the truth.â€
3. Donâ€™t inadvertently fund non-mainstream news sites
Many companies purchase blocks of online advertising that are allocated to particular websites by robots, which means businesses may not know where on the internet their ads will appear. That means could inadvertently advertise on fake or hateful news sites. Last year, for example, an ad for Fiat Chrysler got the wrong kind of national attention after it ran on a fake news site next to a story claiming that Yoko Ono had an affair with Hillary Clinton. The good news is that businesses can set guidelines blocking their ads from particular sites, or only advertising on a â€œwhite listâ€ of websites whose values they support.
4. Write responses in advance
Because trending topics change so rapidly on social media, itâ€™s important for businesses to have answers to possible criticism prepared and approved so theyâ€™re ready to post if attacked. â€œYou have very little time to respond because the conversation is changing so rapidly that people are quickly on to the next topic,â€ Gaines-Ross said. â€œIf it takes you 48 hours to get internal approval on a response, by the time you do it, youâ€™re just reviving the story.â€
Duda warns that the tone of such messages is important. â€œBe authentic, not overly emotional or critical,â€ he advised. â€œDonâ€™t play the victim,
but rather be the trusted provider of
He also says that if fake news does spread, it can be smart for companies to take out paid ads on social media so that audiences searching for information on Google find the businessâ€™s message rather than the false reports.
5. Choose your battles
Duda advises clients to focus on â€œmoving the movable.â€ As he explained: â€œSome people arenâ€™t open to facts. You should make sure that youâ€™re spending your time and resources talking to people who want to hear what you have to say and understand your position.â€ Customers, for example, are probably interested in what a business has to say, while bloggers intent on advancing extreme political views will likely be less open-minded. Duda says itâ€™s important to understand where such audiences get their information in advance, so companies know how to reach them rapidly.
6. Consider legal action
Public-relations executives normally counsel clients not to sue the media. â€œItâ€™s the last thing we tell clients,â€ said Duda. But the rules are different for fake news: â€œNormally, even in the blogosphere, people try to be factual. Whatâ€™s different today is you have publications where facts donâ€™t matter and thereâ€™s no traditional way of sitting down with a reporter or editor to get the fact right.â€ In those cases, Duda says, it may be impossible to get a story corrected or deleted without legal action.
â€œThere is no better place to confront the purveyors of fake news than the American courtroom,â€ said Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor and Washington-based partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. â€œCivil discovery, sworn depositions, and the prospect of a public trial offer the only effective mechanism to put these people under oath, find out who is funding them, and whose interests they are serving,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s very powerful stuff.â€
MacDougall says that even if the websitesâ€™ backers appear to be well-funded, itâ€™s still possible to win a civil suit by showing harm and reckless disregard for the truth. â€œThere are lots of good lawyers in this country who will take on cases without pay to expose bad conduct like fake news,â€ he added. â€”Bloomberg
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of â€œPitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.â€ She previously served in the Obama