The use of the term “fake news” has exploded since the recent presidential campaign.
Yet two experts with deep experience say the reputational damage caused by false stories is nothing new and that every organization should prepare to combat misinformation.
The two will speak at Ragan’s PR and Media Relations Summit in New York City from April 5–7.
- Christopher Barger, a founding partner at the executive consultancy Brain+Trust Partners, will discuss “The science of trust: The communicator’s survival guide for the ‘age of post-factualism.'”
- John P. David, president of David PR Group, plans to offer tactics and strategies in his session, “How to Protect or Destroy Your Online Reputation”
Post-factualism has been around for a long time, Barger says. The problem is that people are wired to believe and respond to negative information, making it harder for organizations to tamp down the flames of rumor-mongering.
Procter & Gamble Co. had to battle false rumors in the 1980s that its logo was a satanic symbol, Barger notes. Tommy Hilfiger said last fall he is still burned by a two-decade-old viral lie that he had made racist comments on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“This is not just about politics,” Barger says. “This is not just about one particular candidate or one particular set of voters.”
Old or new, the dangers to reputation are serious, and organizations are judged on how they are depicted online. Yet many in the PR profession don’t know all the things that can be done to fight back, David says.
Often people think the only thing you can do is flood the internet with positive info to push false rumors or negative information lower in the search results, he says, but there are other steps as well.
Often you can ask politely and get false stories taken down from websites, David says. Many blogs and corporate websites will respond positively to a request. Just don’t go in with guns blazing, or you’ll hurt your cause.
Another tactic is to get providers to take down malicious content. All online content has to move through the conduits, whether the falsehoods are spread via AT&T, Verizon, YouTube, GoDaddy, Google or other means.
“Every piece of online content has to abide by lots of different rules and lots of different conditions,” David says.
If you can show, say, managers of a blogging platform that a malicious user is breaking the rules, you sometimes can get it removed. Even if you can’t remove a post, Google often respond to complaints and causes malicious posts to disappear from search results.
Bad internal data
Bad information isn’t cooked up only by guys in their underwear scarfing Cheetos and spreading fake news from their basements. It can emerge internally as well.
Bad information can spread internally when people are trying to force data to fit what the chief executive wants to see, Barger says. It can also come as rival departments jockey for budget and position, thereby interpreting data in ways that are favorable to themselves. Similarly, vendors can twist the facts to highlight their own accomplishments.
For example, when the Washington Redskins set up a website for its 2014 training camp, third-party media monitoring services claimed that the site drew a staggering 7.8 billion unique visitors to the site.
“They issued a release saying there were more unique visitors coming to that website to check out their training camp than there are people on earth,” Barger says. “Very clearly, badly interpreted data.”
To avoid such problems, it’s important to establish internal safeguards to ensure integrity of data, Barger says. Does everybody have access to the same information? Is there agreement throughout your organization on the definition of key performance indicators?
Employees now targeted
As reputational crises blow up online, organizations must understand that their employees might find themselves in the line of fire.
Nordstrom’s shares tumbled after President Donald Trump tweeted in February that the chain had treated his daughter “so unfairly” when it stopped selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessory line. The retail chain said that decision was based on sales performance.
Most people won’t have access to the CEO at Nordstrom, Barger says, but they might know a cashier at the perfume counter or their neighbor who sells shoes at the store. Nowadays these individuals can become a focal point of contention during crises.
“They become the person who is going to for better or worse is influence the audience’s perception of the company,” he says.
Organizations should train and better inform employees, empowering them to recognize the role they play.
“In a polarized environment,” Barger says, “employees are now on the front line in terms of potentially being on the receiving end of threats, being on the receiving end of bullying.”
Cyber security isn’t the responsibility of just the technology folks, David says. If your business touches any kind of private data—credit card records, medical records, Social Security numbers—you’re vulnerable to a cyber attack, he says.
“We have to start looking at reputation as crossing multiple areas of a company,” David says. “We have to have plans in place so that our employees understand that, and we have to prepare them and educate them about how they impact the equation.”
To learn more about saving your reputation and combatting false news, sign up here for Ragan’s PR and Media Relations Summit.