In the aftermath of the combative 2016 presidential election, many brands are coming up with a new plan: how to address being the target of a fake news story fueled by malicious intent.
Experts say a perfect storm has developed in which online rumor and conspiracy are being widely accepted as truth. The drivers include the widening political divide, the rise of propaganda websites, the mistrust of mainstream news sources, and social network algorithms that create echo chambers on users’ pages.
"Malicious or inaccurate content is easier to battle; conspiracy generated and supported by an advocate with an agenda is much harder to mitigate and extinguish," says Scott Tangney, MD of ICR. "Fake news is basically a super rumor spun with malicious intent or conspiracy that has all the makings for sustained viral content."
One of the most bellicose presidential elections in history produced a number of "super rumours"—and communicators don’t expect them to dissipate anytime soon.
For instance, alternative news sites and conservative blogs reported last month that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton bussed people to Austin, Texas, to stage anti-Donald Trump protests. One blog post with the headline, "Figures: Anti-Trump protestors were bussed into Austin: #FakeProtests," was shared on Facebook more than 44,000 times, according to a New York Times article that deconstructed how it went viral.
The source was a tweet from a marketing company owner in the Texas capital, who speculated to his then-less-than-50 followers at the time that the parked buses he photographed were transporting paid protesters. However, no connection between the buses and the protest was ever established.
Earlier this month, fake news stories were the impetus for a dangerous real-life event in the nation’s capital.
Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, DC, pizzeria, had to temporarily close after an armed man was arrested after opening fire in the restaurant. The man, who drove hours from North Carolina, told authorities he was investigating news reports about it being the epicenter of a child-abuse ring connected to Hillary Clinton, a conspiracy known on Twitter as #PizzaGate.
Of trying to stop the false stories and accusations, the restaurant’s general manager told the Times, "It’s like trying to shoot a swarm of bees with one gun."
Brands, and the PR firms they work with, are on-edge about the phenomenon.
About a decade ago, during the advent of social media, brands scrambled to avoid losing control of their message to consumers before gradually realizing they still had the power to influence dialogue.
"Now there are conversations going on that you can not only not control, but you can’t even influence," says Scott Schneider, chief digital officer at Ruder Finn, commenting on large groups of social media users spreading content because they’re viewing it as news and aren’t being exposed to articles stating the contrary.
He adds that while parody is an accepted form of commentary, "this is a terrifying prospect for any brand," noting that if social media has taught companies anything about crisis communications, it’s that some users won’t like them no matter what.
"You almost have to go back to your regular crisis playbook, which is only to engage the moderate voices and convince them of your truth or point of view," he says. "Don’t waste their time on the 20%; focus on the 60% that you can influence."
Self-examination is the best defense
Jeff Eller, founder of the Jeff Eller Group and former EVP and co-chair at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says brands should be proactive in uncovering all of their own potential skeletons in the closet.
"Before anything happens, you need to figure out what you need to add to your crisis plan, whether you’re Comet Ping Pong or General Electric," he says. "In politics, we call this doing the opposition research on yourself."
He adds that most public-facing companies monitor what is being said about them on social media, and they are ready to deploy resources to refute claims on their channels and in traditional media. Yet to combat fake news, they need to add forensic IT so the original source of the false news can be found.
"Unfortunately, the burden of proof that used to be on the news site for accuracy is now on [comms]," says Eller. "That means we will not only have to push back and explain why something isn’t true, but include an extra layer of proof to refute it."
He also advises companies in a regulated space to ensure the public affairs team is brought into the crisis-preparedness plan.
"Regulators ask questions first without having all the facts, and so you don’t want them thinking a fake story is real," says Eller, who has worked in the White House in roles including deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton. "Corporations have to understand that this is not just a comms problem."
New kinds of scenario planning
Tangney advises that crisis teams should anticipate how opponents could use half-truths or twist a situation to create false news.
"All brands should be adding fake news scenarios to their crisis plans and undergo exercises to address malicious rumors inspired by events or other situations," he says. "Some of the new areas to add are personal attacks on executives and claims of illegal financing or business dealings."
He notes that companies should also consider their legal options for taking on creators of fake news.
Russ Williams, EVP of crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe, says brands should also review their media buying, which could inadvertently fuel false news stories.
"Often, brands don’t realize their ads are appearing on fake news site until they are called out on social media. And because so much of the fake news out there is political in nature, brands are being taken to task for supporting a political position when their ads appear on these sites," he explains. "There is a continual need to assess where ads are being placed, and the continual need to blacklist those sites where brands do not want their ads to appear."