Media-doubting fact-check sites are 'new front' in corporate communications

BlackBerry's Fact Check portal shows you don't need to be 'a Walmart' to fight back, say corporate communications experts, though it certainly helps.

BlackBerry’s Fact Check portal, and blogs and websites like it, are a "new front" in corporate communications as companies look for more aggressive ways to push back against media reports they disagree with.

The Canadian mobile-device maker launched the blog last Thursday to hit back against what it sees as "sensationalized" media reports. Its launch took place about a week after Walmart responded to a negative op-ed in The New York Times  by posting an "edited" version of the piece on its own blog, complete with red-penned corrections.

Walmart describes its defensive strategy against what it believes to be erroneous reports as "no free shots," meaning a member of its communications team will quickly call back or email a reporter if he writes something the company does not think is accurate.

In its introductory post, BlackBerry made clear it is adopting a similar game plan. The smartphone maker’s marketing SVP, Mark Wilson, said "sensationalized" media reports about BlackBerry have been "crowding the airways" due to competitors’ attempts to incite "fear, uncertainly, and doubt" about the company.

"Given this environment, we must fight back. And BlackBerry’s best offense is to present the facts," he wrote.

Wilson also asked consumers to let BlackBerry know about any "work of fiction" they see or read about his company. BlackBerry also took the fight to Twitter, promoting the #BBFactCheck hashtag as part of the introductory post. 

When called for comment, BlackBerry senior manager of corporate communications Lisette Kwong said a representative from the company would not be able to discuss the communications strategy behind the portal for "at least two weeks, due to [US and Canadian holidays]."

Representatives from APCO Worldwide and Text100, brought on in April 2013 to handle most of BlackBerry’s global PR work, would not confirm if they are working on the fact-check blog and deferred comment to BlackBerry.

Tactics differ when ‘Walmarts’ or ‘BlackBerries’ push back
For decades, the Times and other major media outlets have been known for "blowing the whistle on corporate wrongdoings," but they no longer monopolize the press, with both digital and social media having chipped away at its power to shape opinion.

Sam Whitmore, owner of consultancy Media Survey, says this is encouraging large multinational companies such as Walmart to fight back. "These big companies are saying, ‘Hey, we are going to take this to the people and we have as much [influence] as any media brand,’" he explains. "I think that is why Walmart challenged the Times."

Yet Walmart – ranked number one on the Fortune 500 list – has clout that smaller companies lack. For instance, a multinational might consider itself "fundamentally superior" to the media because it provides employment and important services to the country as a whole, Whitmore notes.

BlackBerry, meanwhile, has had to navigate a number of major business issues in the past year, during which its stock value fell significantly before a recent rebound. Once a dominant smartphone maker, it has also seen its share of that market dwindle since the release of Apple’s iPhone and various systems running Google’s Android operating system. Because it doesn’t have Walmart’s influence, it has to mix "carrot and stick" a bit more, he adds.

"BlackBerry’s portal represents potentially a whole new front in corporate communications, because they are not this big multinational conglomerate that has a bazillion dollars to spend," Whitmore explains. "But [BlackBerry] must catch the media doing things right as well as catch them doing things wrong. If all they are going to do is find fault 100% of the time, eventually that may wear thin because then you sound whiny."

Regardless of whether the company is a "Walmart" or a "BlackBerry," its digital rapid-response efforts need to be sustained, both with information that supports its business plan and a vision for where it is headed, notes Ben LaBolt, founding partner at The Incite Agency.

"There is no doubt that the [negative] narrative that has been out there on BlackBerry has defined them over a long period of time, but even companies that have a solid reputation are managing those reputations every day," LaBolt says. "Even if it is only one [erroneous] article, it can still generate a lot of conversation digitally. It is certainly appropriate to respond to [an inaccurate] article in a way that the same audience can share your set of facts with their networks."

Risk vs. reward
Companies have little to lose when using a portal such as Fact Check to fight back against flawed media reports, contends Whitmore, who says the practice is unlikely to harm their media relations.

"The media doesn’t really care when it comes right down to it. It has no stake in anybody," he says. "One day you are up, another day you are down."

However, the strategy could backfire if it becomes a substitute for dealing with members of the press directly, adds Paul Gennaro, SVP and CCO at AECOM.

"If you utilize this tactic as one tool in the tool kit, it should not damage that relationship [between a company and the media]," he explains. "This is one channel and it is a good channel to leverage, but it cannot be the primary channel. Audiences have different preferences for how they consume their information."

The blueprint has often been used on the campaign trail, notably by then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in an effort to dismiss claims that the candidate was born in Kenya or was secretly a Muslim. Obama for America called their portal Fight the Smears.

Yet Gennaro contends that the tactic doesn’t necessarily change or influence opinions during a political campaign. Rather, it’s helpful for "rallying the base," he says.

Gennaro points out that if a politician posts something on social media, supporters will generally reply with positive comments while opponents will be critical – or worse.

"It is a good tactic to consider, given the expectation that all audiences have for speed," he adds. "But it is important to do it in a measured way, because there also is that heightened expectation for authenticity and for transparency."

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