As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I once was investigating a landfill business when I found numerous stories online alleging that it had ties to the mob.
I called a company spokesman, who said the accusations were internet smears that had taken on a life of their own. He also had a smart response beyond mere denial: He referred me to the former head of a New York organized crime task force.
To battle the internet rumors, the company had hired this crimefighter and given him full authority to tear apart its business records, the way prosecutors swoop in on Mafia front companies, looking for illegality. I interviewed the former organized crime cop, and he said his investigation had cleared the company.
He convinced me. My story never mentioned the mob.
The company had taken extraordinary measures to combat persistent fake news. Although that case was unusual, many organizations face a Sisyphean battle to fight off false stories that recirculate online, each feeding the next.
Short of hiring a mob-busting cop or filing a lawsuit, how do you protect yourself against false information and outright smears that can take on a life of their own? Here are a few tips.
1. Build relationships with reporters.
Start before a crisis hits. With traditional news media outlets, build and maintain relationships with key journalists who cover your industry or organization, says Nick Peters, senior vice president of CommCore Consulting Group.
Usually, they reach out to sources they know and trust for comment before publishing a story that might be damaging, he says. That gives you the opportunity to state your case, or maybe even get the story killed. “If it appears nonetheless without your opportunity to comment, depending on its nature, you can try and get the reporter to do a follow-up with your view,” he says.
“Otherwise try and get an op-ed placed to rebut the news item if it is an important enough and current issue,” Peters adds. “A letter to the editor is less visible, but does show up in searches.”
A simple correction is usually buried and not very helpful, but it can prevent future reporters from repeating the error when they check previous stories on a subject.
2. Monitor the web.
Monitor articles, posts and responses by tone, as well as number of “likes.” “In the world of social media and blogs, ongoing monitoring is crucial,” Peters says.
If you find a posting that is false or misleading early on, try to engage the poster directly and see whether the individual will take it down or correct it before it goes viral. “Often the poster just wants to get your attention,” Peters says.
3. Establish a plan.
CommCore’s President and CEO Andrew Gilman suggests a multifaceted plan of attack, both before a story runs and afterward:
- Usually it’s better to engage the reporter earlier than later.
- If a reporter calls, ask what the story is about and its angle. “You don’t often get that information, but it’s important to ask.”
- Provide facts and data that can change the article.
- Select and prepare a spokesperson and supporting information.
- Try to figure out who else the reporter is calling.
- Monitor mentions of the article, and decide how to respond.
4. Act quickly.
“The most crucial factor in any crisis is to act fast,” says Alistair Clay of Class PR. “The news media moves in seconds and minutes, not hours and days. A crisis can rapidly spiral out of control if not treated as the priority issue in an organization, at any moment.”
5. Bury negative stories under your own content.
Several years ago a friend gleefully emailed me to point out that a pornographic website was using a URL I had once owned—one that included my name. It featured pictures of women unhindered by modesty norms, and links to salacious websites with names such as Chubby Grandma and Soccer Porn—along with a slew of unprintable ones.
What had happened was this: After I let my URL expire, the domain registry company had resold it, as is its practice. A guy in Hungary snapped it up. Apparently, shady web developers in Eastern Europe and China buy expired websites by the thousands, hoping to rake in search traffic, I learned.
I tracked down the new buyer, phoned him in Budapest, and politely asked whether I could buy back the URL. He generously agreed to take down the domain—no charge—saying he appreciated my civil tone. “Btw I never realized that there are a name ‘Working,’” he emailed, in fractured English. “I thought it’s just a word and that’s why I built a porn site.”
Hey, it happens all the time! But if he had refused to take down the site, several experts recommended another tactic: Bury the damaging information under real content about yourself. This pushes ugliness far down in Google results, out of view.
Because I have had thousands of bylines published over the years, I would not need to do this. Still, it could be a solution for those whose names are less commonplace and find false information floating to page one of Google results.
6. Get the post taken down.
What if the post is truly egregious, such as a threat of violence or a copyright violation? Organizations such as Twitter have terms of service, and you can report violations and get certain tweets removed. (Conservatives in Congress and elsewhere have accused Twitter, Facebook and others of being wildly inconsistent in applying those terms, allegations that social media executives deny.) Other sites have also made reporting of abusive content easier.
If a blog lobs false charges, hosting sites such as WordPress allow you to report those who violate copyright law, promote suicide, or are abusive or obscene, among other evils. Google lists information it will remove from searches, such as Social Security numbers, medical records and sexually explicit images shared without your consent. However, the search giant suggests that you try the webmaster first, because otherwise the information still exists on the internet.
If the offending content doesn’t meet those criteria—or has been spread across the internet like a half-open garbage truck dumping its load on its way to the landfill—you’re better off coupling this tactic with other means mentioned above.