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Fake News: A Synopsis and Battle Plan for Brands

“Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle.” The 2016 presidential election sparked quite an uproar about the prevalence of fake news articles. However, this quote is not from 2016; it was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Fake news is not a new problem, but it is a very real one.

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Widespread fake news articles have been around since the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago. The era of objective journalism in the 20th century seemed to have cured society of this plague, just as the Age of Enlightenment seemed to have done in the 17th and 18th centuries, but now we find a new outbreak of fake news online.

Today, the proxy for trust is visibility. People assume that news articles won’t be published, shared by peers, or appear at the top of a Google search unless they’re true. When the public moved away from credibility-tested mainstream media to “snack-size” news online, they took their trust in news sources with them and consumed online content without questioning its accuracy. Combined with the phenomenon of people only reading information that affirms their existing beliefs, fake news is now a rampant and dangerous spectacle.

Understanding the detailed history behind the evolution of fake news is important, but it won’t tell you how to treat it in the present. Addressing the problem of fake news in its entirety is necessary for a long-term solution, but it doesn’t give practical applications to its victims. How do you prepare for, combat, and recover from intentionally inaccurate articles written about you or your company?

On the surface, fake news appears to only target politicians, celebrities, and buzzworthy trends, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Harmful pieces about companies are frequently written by those who would stand to profit from their downfall, or simply as clickbait. Just last week, rumors were reported to The Starr Conspiracy about certain enterprise software companies and their alleged internal conflicts. Large companies such as Pepsi all the way to down to local pizza restaurants find themselves unfairly attacked in this post-truth society.

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This intentional or careless deception of the public is not only parasitic to our collective intelligence, but it can also prove to be damaging or even lethal to brands. Decades of marketing efforts and the millions of dollars spent on them are torn down by a barrage of unfounded social media posts.

In 2011, articles were written claiming that Taco Bell’s food contained cat and dog meat, and that it was being forced to close by the FDA. In reality, none of these accusations were true, but Taco Bell’s brand suffered nonetheless. Facts aren’t enough nowadays; it’s critically important how and when you communicate those facts to your publics.

As PR practitioners, we often advise our clients to:

  • Put a proactive messaging strategy to inoculate a brand in place
  • Develop and implement a crisis communication strategy before a crisis occurs
  • Monitor news and social media for mentions of a brand
  • Deploy the crisis communication strategy with velocity to counter fake news
  • Immediately discredit fake news and restate facts to key publics
  • Consider third-party verifiers for added credibility

Through vigilant news and social media monitoring, you can listen in on the conversations involving your brand, giving you real-time information about rumors and misinformation. Often knowing is half the battle. The other half is being prepared (having a crisis communications plan in place and being able to act with speed). Research and analysis will also better inform a strategy on how to refute misinformation about your brand. The goal is to attack fake news before it infects your customer base.

Deploy everything within your arsenal — email marketing, social media platforms, blogs, and credible third-party sources (promoter clients or partners). And if you’ve already established key relationships with credible media sources, analysts, and other influencers, your brand will suffer less from fake news.