The do’s and don’ts of analyzing and responding to misinformation

Monitor, monitor, monitor. And then power up with contingency planning.

From poultry company Perdue Chicken to energy giant ExxonMobil, brands are being increasingly thrust into the national political conversation for reasons well beyond their control.

Politics — and along with it, misinformation — are now unpredictable. So brands and their PR agencies must be vigilant and ready to respond should things go awry. Experts say the first steps are to make sure all of a brand’s content and assets are consistent, and then stay vigilant.

“It has never been so important for brands to ensure all of their content on social media is aligned with their brand vision and values,” says Dara Busch, president of 5W. “Inauthenticity is a red flag.”

Steve Bauer, SVP and partner at FleishmanHillard, agrees and notes that “it’s critically important that clients be fiercely protective of their brands and assets today. Threats can emerge quickly and in completely unpredictable ways and places.”

But how does a brand stay aware of everything going on in the political and news cycles? For instance, how was Perdue Chicken to know that Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) — no relation — would mock Sen. Kamala Harris’ name in a campaign speech, prompting outraged consumers to threaten to boycott the brand? Or how could ExxonMobil expect that President Donald Trump would mention the company’s CEO in a campaign stop?

How can even the most non-political of companies ensure that a campaign or hashtag aren’t hijacked or fall prey to misinformation? Monitor, monitor, monitor. And then power up with contingency planning.

Bauer calls for “extensive monitoring” as well as the training of teams “on how to mitigate privacy and data security issues.” He adds that “conducting simulations to pressure test crisis management processes and systems is also a good idea.”

“It will be easy to identify if your campaign is being hijacked or simply headed in the wrong direction,” adds Busch. “Monitor the response and return to your original goals. Does engagement align with your intentions? Or does it go directly against campaign and company values?”

Sometimes the best response is no response. Mike Moschella, director of DKC Analytics, notes that his firm focuses on tracking the velocity and acceleration of a given conversation.

“If it seems to be gaining steam, we might recommend quick action to impact the trajectory. But, often, we can make a safe bet that an issue is a blip on the radar and the conversation will be done shortly without intervention,” he says. “Worse than doing nothing is doing something that greatly extends the life cycle of a conversation. Timing matters.”

Busch, on the other hand, argues that a lack of response and failing to set the record straight can lead to the loss of consumer trust. One key mitigating effort is focusing on preparation, she says.

“Brands need to be in-the-know regarding current events and how they’re playing out across social media. Unfortunately, you cannot control others hijacking a campaign or a hashtag for their own cause or enjoyment,” she says. “What you can do is be as prepared as possible. Before implementing a hashtag or campaign, the first step is always research.”

Michael Lamp, senior social and digital media strategist and practice leader at Hunter, argues that hashtag-jacking is a good lesson in contingency planning.

“You’ve got to brainstorm all the good and bad ways a particular tag could be used to determine the risk factor,” he says.

“This is why many brands, despite creative ideation to the contrary, end up driving equity in the brand name itself as the tag,” Lamp adds. “What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in security and ease of measurement.”

Experts suggest a range of things to keep track of and ways to monitor. Busch calls for setting up alerts when a brand is mentioned or using a media monitoring platform to track a hashtag. By doing so, a practitioner can get ahead of any potential misinformation.

“You never know when a tweet or a post has the potential to go viral,” Busch says. While she acknowledges that not every potential or real hijacking can be addressed, a good recourse is to issue a statement from the brand’s verified profile to address the false claims or misinformation.

Bauer notes that “the best approach is to plan for potential scenarios now and practice implementing your plan to identify any gaps or vulnerabilities that can be addressed.”

Each organization will find different things useful, ranging from social, digital and communications metrics like traffic, volume, share of voice and sentiment to broader business metrics, including customer perception and engagement and sales impact.

If and when the time comes that a brand campaign is hijacked or subjected to a misinformation campaign, there are few possible approaches to understand the impact. The first option, according to Moschella, is to “run a flash poll online to test awareness of the issue and potential impact.” He argues going beyond free online options and instead using a “strong polling operation.”

Short of that, Moschella suggests looking at shifts in online conversation sentiment.

“We can also look at source demographics and overlapping interests of online sources to assess impact,” he adds. “If demographics and source interests are closely aligned with the brand’s target consumer, the brand needs to take things more seriously. But if they’re not the type of people who like to buy the product, you might recommend a less-engaged course of action.”

Lamp recommends an approach similar to that of Bauer and Busch. Looking at the spectrum of sentiment, Lamp calls for generating “some version of a net sentiment analysis to gauge the impact of a particular trend, tag or group of voice is having on a brand’s health.”

Some subjective conversations can simply be re-directed by the brand. “But when the line is crossed and actual non-truths are being spouted as fact, it is our responsibility as brand guardians to set the record straight,” Lamp says. “This is often done in tandem with partners and thought leaders who can generate scale with their influence.”

Another issue to consider when addressing hashtag-hijacking or misinformation: how social and traditional media interact.

“Sometimes social media is driven by news articles, and sometimes it is completely disconnected from the news itself,” says Moschella. “The proportion of online engagement stemming from articles, and what outlets in particular, provides insights into how to react.”

As Busch says, both the opportunities and risks of social media are vast.

“What makes social media great, inviting users to share their opinions and thoughts and engage directly with each other and with your brand at any moment can also be a brand’s downfall,” she says. “Stakes are always high when using social media, especially as tensions heighten surrounding ongoing social causes.”

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