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Fighting Fake News with Positive PR

Last year, Oxford Dictionaries chose the smiley emoji as its word of the year, as it best summed up ‘the ethos, mood, and preoccupations’. Fast forward to 2016 and things are very different. Following a divisive Brexit referendum and an explosive election in America, this year’s top word is ‘post-truth’, after its usage rose by a whopping 2000% on last year.

Post-truth is all about saying what people want to hear, rather than presenting them with proven facts. It’s about appealing to their emotions rather than logic.

In the post-truth era, the lines are blurred between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty.

Post-truth in action

The term was used frequently ahead of the Brexit vote, with both the Leave and Remain camps accused of making misleading declarations. For example, the Leave campaign claimed that leaving the EU would save the UK £350 million a week, only to quietly drop it altogether after the successful vote.

Of course, Donald Trump is the leading exponent of post-truth. During his electoral campaign, he allegedly made a staggering 104 false claims. In one, he said of the Trump Foundation, “the money goes 100% to different charities.” But reports by the Washington Post and others have since claimed that Trump has used foundation money to settle a legal case and donate to political groups.

Post-truth reporting

As Trump’s campaign demonstrated, we’re living in an age where people engage with fake news much more readily than real facts. Analysis by BuzzFeed found that fake news stories received more than 8.7million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook in the last three months of the campaign alone. The most popular stories included false claims that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump and that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS and was disqualified by law from holding public office.

Some of the stories were spread by political activists trying to discredit opponents, while others were invented by hoax sites to make money from when they went viral.

Caught in the cross-fire

Global brands, Pepsi and New Balance also got caught in the online Trump vitriol when company executives were misquoted in fabricated articles that went viral, and consumers called for boycotts of their products.

Pro-Trump websites incorrectly quoted Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi as saying that Donald Trump supporters should “take their business elsewhere,” while anti-Trump websites quoted New Balance’s vice president of public affairs saying that New Balance was the “official brand of the Trump revolution.” As a result, some customers burned their New Balance shoes.

Protecting your brand

It remains to be seen if these fake news stories have caused any permanent damage, but it just goes to show that businesses of any size can fall victim.

So how have brands dealt with the fake news stories and how can you prepare your brand for being on the receiving end of one?

Respond quickly

If you find a fake story, you need to respond quickly to make the facts known. It’s important to get your brand’s true position on an issue understood immediately, and not deliberate too long on developing a flawless statement. After all if you don’t counter negative news with your own story, you will open your brand up to even more fake news. Think of it this way. In the absence of you articulating your own message, everyone else has the opportunity to define the message for you. If someone else gets there before you, it’ll take that much longer to take back control of the narrative. This is where your PR consultant is worth their weight in gold.

Flood the media with a positive narrative

In this situation, your brand has to fight fire with fire. And this means flooding the media with positive stories.

New Balance did a good job of this, particularly with their social media messages. They released strongly worded statements on all their social channels, reinforcing their brand values, telling consumers who the company are, what they stand for, and what they don’t stand for. They were up front and consistent with the messaging, which will benefit them in the long run.

Make every employee a brand messenger

Once you’ve decided what the response will be, every employee needs to spread that same message, from the office cleaner to the CEO. The only way to effectively manage a post-truth PR crisis is to make sure the entire company knows the true story and can communicate it well. Never overlook an employee who might take to social media with an opinion of their own. This is especially important if you’re a consumer-facing brand.

Today, there are hundreds of fake news sites around, from those that deliberately imitate real newspapers, to those which tread the fine line between satire and plain misinformation. Therefore, it’s worth taking steps to protect your company from a possible fake news attack.

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