How to quash fake news with a crisis communications plan

You can’t prevent false allegations, but you can douse the firestorm by responding quickly, keeping colleagues on the same page and enlisting your community to help.

Doing business online, you expect the occasional negative review or snarky social media swipe from a competitor.

Few anticipate waking up to a firestorm of false allegations, yet that’s exactly what happened to Comet Ping Pong late last year. Rumors spread online that the pizzeria was a front for a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.

When the owner and his employees began taking the heat, he discovered dozens of fabricated articles online about Mrs. Clinton’s purportedly orchestrating the kidnapping, molesting and trafficking of children in the restaurant’s back rooms. The rumors continued; eventually an armed man showed up at the place of business.

Of course, none of the allegations was true.

Although this is an extreme case of fake news gone viral, it raises the question: What if you or your company becomes a fake news target? Do you have a crisis communications strategy in place to fend it off?

Here are a few tactics that can help you weather a fake news attack:

Respond quickly and consistently.

Your first inclination might be to ignore the accusations and hope they go away. You might also think you shouldn’t say anything publicly, in case you take the issue to court later. Unfortunately, even if you eventually prevail in court, your reputation could be irreparably damaged.

Your legal team’s job is to win in the court of law; your job is to win in the court of public opinion.

To do that, you must calmly refute the allegations on all your communication channels. That means emailing customers, publishing blog posts and initiating conversations on social media.

Keep everyone informed.

Hopefully, you already have an established “crisis mode protocol” specifying who is responsible for which communications. If not, make sure you clarify everyone’s role—and that your team is crystal clear on approved responses.

If you authorize your social media or marketing teams to respond to complaints or questions, provide message training to ensure consistency. You might even give them a bulleted list of approved messages to draw from. Either way, don’t leave it up to them to improvise in the heat of the moment.

It’s also wise to make executives available to answer questions. Your staff will appreciate knowing the big bosses have everyone’s back—and that they aren’t offloading tough conversations.

Enlist your community to help.

If you don’t have a formal community of loyal followers, engage with customers in real time, let them know what’s going on, and ask them to help combat the spread of the fake news.

Civic groups can help. Reach out to your local trade association or chamber of commerce, and ask for their support.

When you do receive help, make sure to thank your supporters. When your community members support you, they are potentially making themselves a target. Show them you appreciate their courage and kindness.

Reach out to friendly journalists.

Is a local journalist a regular customer, or did a broadcaster air a piece you contributed to? Perhaps you have a relationship with a local reporter.

Even if your contact isn’t the right person to address a situation, they might pass your story along to someone who is. Try to secure coverage in reputable publications to debunk the allegations against you.

Be prepared.

The most potent weapon against a crisis is prevention: Formulate a thorough plan that’s updated monthly and practiced regularly.

Don’t wait for fake news to happen to you. If you take a passive, reactive approach, you’ll quickly get battered, burned and tarnished.

A swift, strategic response can be the difference between a minor burst of fake news that blows over quickly and a major crisis that permanently damages your business.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich. A version of this post first appeared on Spin Sucks.

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