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Nick Puleo

It is not an exaggeration to say that brands are increasingly exposed to fake news attacks. In fact, an entire industry has emerged in recent years that focuses solely on producing fake information. Make no mistake: untruths are bad for business and sometimes cause years of damage.

Such damage can be significant. Let’s say the first page of a web search about your business shows only one negative story. According to internet research company MOZ, a company could risk losing up to 22 percent of its sales. More than one such story makes that number rise even higher.

Last year, for example, homewares retailer Wayfair was charged with conspiring in a child trafficking network, resulting in national media coverage and a full-blown corporate crisis. TV segments sponsored by Russia even targeted an entire sector, falsely claiming that 5G technology could be harmful, causing public concern and even resistance to advances in the new technology.

This article is featured in O’Dwyer’s Jan. ’22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer’s Guide Magazine
(View PDF version)

The risks of facing such a head-on attack are real. As I have seen, it usually takes the form of “information” designed to mislead consumers, investors, and other stakeholders into believing falsehoods about your product, service, or business as a whole.

This so-called information can be categorized into misinformation, disinformation, or misinformation. Each is defined drastically differently from the others, and these differences are important.

How can you counteract campaigns that are aimed directly at you, either preventively, during implementation or afterwards? To get started, it is critically important to know how to instantly tell which of these three culprits you are facing and whether they are just mischievous or downright malicious. Only then can you tailor an approach that is likely to produce the right solution for the moment.

In my experience with clients threatened by incorrect information, I’ve found the following strategies work:

Misinformation: This is factually inaccurate information, often the result of accidental mistake rather than hostile intent. Rumors of a plant closure or poor product performance could be floating around. Businesses suffer the worst consequences of misinformation when it is allowed to spread unnoticed. But some organizations are acting too late to stop them. I was hired by a tech company after (false) rumors of sales force layoffs persisted, but by then more than half of those employees had responded by firing. A brand with a less robust presence and a weak company narrative is particularly prone to such inaccuracies. A void in storytelling can easily be filled with incorrect details.

The good news is that misinformation from outside actors trying to abuse your reputation is the easiest of the three types of fraudulent information to defend and neutralize against. The best strategy is to communicate frequently, clearly, and precisely to your key audiences, highlighting what your brand stands for and how your company works. Email your messages to employees, company blogs, and social media channels.

We recently partnered with a university that was falsely accused of promoting anti-homosexual policies. The challenge was to defend oneself against criticism without losing the trust of students, lecturers and donors. To achieve this goal, we have developed a campaign that showcases the university’s long history of proactive engagement along with gay public statements and content.

Disinformation: This version of an alternate reality – defined more or less as lies or “factoids” intended to discredit or damage the reputation of a competitor or adversary – is considerably harder to crack. A study by the World Economic Forum found that tweets that contained disinformation consistently reached more people – and faster – than those that contained the truth. The latest research by Kroll, a specialist in company investigations and risk advice, showed that 84 percent of companies felt threatened by market manipulation through disinformation. For example, Twitter and Avon products suffered from disinformation campaigns that manipulated market prices.

Companies should always take these misunderstandings seriously. Provide clear, concise statements on your website, social media channels and other assets to quickly take countermeasures. Consider issuing a press release to blatantly reveal inaccurate information. Companies that hesitate or doubt rather than act briskly run the risk of stalling, sending the worst possible signal.

Misinformation: This nasty mistake carries a germ of truth that has been specifically skewed to damage your brand. Misinformation is the hardest way to get revenge because it reflects some truth about your business.

You may remember how Starbucks was once caught off guard by a fraudulent marketing ploy that promised all undocumented immigrants a discount on coffee. This scam was obviously intended to lure such immigrants to Starbucks so they could be reported to immigration authorities and possibly deported. Fortunately, Starbucks is widely known as politically progressive, so it proved manageable to address this dubious bias.

On the other hand, most cases of misinformation are less clear-cut. Some companies struggle with answers that are roughly equivalent to, “Well that’s technically true, but let’s go a little deeper here”. It happened when Dominion Voting Systems was accused of rigging the 2020 presidential election. A senior executive had to explain why he made social media posts about Donald Trump. In general, it means that you have probably already lost your opportunity to correct the data set satisfactorily and recover.

Regardless of the type of fake news you encounter, it is best to be proactive rather than reacting. Again, make sure your audience understands and recognizes the values ​​your brand represents and how their business is conducted to the highest legal and ethical standards. Strengthen your brand with a recognizably honest story against dishonesty. Leverage data that tracks conversations about your brand. Most importantly, prepare a crisis communication plan that takes into account all variables and contingencies and keep it in place around the clock to better counter fake news in the moment.

Bottom line: if you ever expect to drown out other people’s stories, you’ll have to turn up the volume yourself.

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Nick Puleo is the President and Founder of Comsint.

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