When a new word enters the dictionary, it usually means some new concept has forced its way into our collective vocabulary. In that context, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” an adjective, which it defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The dictionary has also declared "post-truth" to be its Word of the Year for 2016, an indication that fake news,sadly, is here to stay.
To the surprise of no one, the U.S. presidential election and Brexit turned out to be driving forces behind the rise of fake news. During the final three months of the U.S. election campaigns, the 20 most popular false stories on Facebook beat the 20 most popular true stories from major news sites by more than 1 million likes, shares and comments, according to a Buzzfeed study.
What used to be the seedy underbelly of the marketing world has risen to the surface, and brands that aren’t prepared to deal with baseless attacks could soon find themselves wrongly despised by formerly loyal customers.
When fake news causes real problems
Honest brands can suffer the ill effects of false reporting, both directly and indirectly.
Direct attacks are the easiest to spot. When a company decides to fight dirty, it openly spreads misinformation about the competition and misleads prospects about what competitors stand for and the quality of their products and customer service.
Conversely, indirect harm occurs when fake news sites, which generate massive amounts of traffic, start attracting the attention of programmatic advertising algorithms. Fake news sites get tremendous traffic, so algorithms place the ads of honest companies next to false stories, resulting in decreased consumer trust, and potentially associating nonpartisan brands with polarized and inflammatory content.
Not even a brand as massive as PepsiCo is safe. When CEO Indra Nooyi commented on the result of the election, lamenting the conclusion but congratulating Donald Trump on his victory, alt-right blog Conservative Treehouse put up the totally misleading headline, “Massive Stewardship Fail -- PepsiCo CEO Tells Trump Supporters to Take Their Business Elsewhere.”
When other fake news sites quickly disseminated this false story, PepsiCo’s stock took a 3.75 percent dip the day the headline went live.
How to be successful while staying honest
A concentrated fake news attack is every company’s worst nightmare, but the following strategies may help you reduce the negative effects or avoid them altogether.
1. Become a beacon of transparency.
If a company starts from a position of trust, its standing in the eyes of the public will be much harder to shake. Nearly 40 percent of consumers, in a study by Label Insight, said they would actively switch from one brand to another for a more transparent product.
Transparency provides other benefits besides the refutation of fake news, but if a company has hundreds of transparency reports online, one fake story will have trouble taking it down. To increase your company's transparency, put everything in plain view of the public, your investors, clients and employees.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was on the mark when he said that sharing more real facts online is the best answer to fake stories. At our company, regardless of whether the numbers are good or bad, we make it a point to share everything with clients so that, even when we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped, we are the ones disseminating that information.
2. Fight fire with positive press.
The prevalence of social media as a news source has made it easy to share anything at any time. While this system allows fake news to propagate quickly, it also provides opportunities to churn out positive content. Push out regular good press on social media and, when fake news rears its head, make sure it’s lost in a sea of positivity.
Be proactive about building a reputation and added credibility for your brand before you ever encounter issues with fake news. Set yourself up to combat any false press that might affect your business or industry. If you have a process for producing and distributing content, you can quickly create and disseminate whatever you need, to mitigate false information being circulated about your company.
PepsiCo’s Nooyi gains positive press by writing letters to the parents of the company’s senior executives. That’s an unusual practice, but a wholesome one that engenders goodwill toward the company.
3. Stream original, consistent content.
Transparency reports and positive news stories make up one part of a proactive strategy in the fight against fake news, but a holistic approach is key. You don’t want to respond directly to fake news. To avoid scrambling to find a solution when and if you need to play damage control, create a multichannel plan to push out a steady stream of content all over the web, as Opus Hotel marketing director Daniel Craig did back in 2006.
By launching his industry’s first blog, which covered issues such as how to handle overly demanding guests who leave bad reviews, Craig gained a global audience of followers and major attention for his Vancouver hotel. Using negative press as a topic of discussion, he debunked fake news before it could spread by providing partners and consumers with access to trustworthy, valuable insider information.
This not only helped Opus Hotel build a traditionally strong brand image but also provided a certain level of immunity: Craig’s arsenal of truth could help the hotel defuse any subsequent false information that ended up making the rounds. According to Edelman, brand trust overall dropped 30 percent around the globe in 2016, so nurturing positive relationships has become more critical than ever.
Content generation shouldn’t focus specifically on the possibility of fake news, but rather on the positive aspects of the brand and the relationships a company builds. Provide useful content that speaks about meaningful issues to keep your customers engaged and to create a repository of truth, should you ever need to draw upon it.
In sum, fake news might be gaining steam, but a few post-truth attacks don’t have to cause your company irreparable harm. Focus on transparency and creating positive content to ensure that whatever crazy story pops up next will be nothing more than a blip on your target customers’ otherwise accurate radar.