Fake news – now it’s companies that are under attack

It’s not only politicians who are struggling with the fake news phenomenon, the Financial Times reports today.

Earlier this month, the paper tells us, Tweets apparently from Starbucks advertised a “Dreamer Day” during which its coffee shops would hand out free frappuccinos to migrants in the US who didn’t have the necessary official papers. Other reports quote 40 per cent off any item on the Starbucks menu for this group. The hashtag #borderfreecoffee was shared around thousands of supporters.

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No papers? No problem – apparently.

It sounds like a great offer for certain customers and a bold political statement by a big multinational. In fact, though, it was completely untrue. The offer was invented by a contributor to 4chan, an English-language imageboard website.

A new threat

“How about we meme “Undocumented Immigrant Day” at Starbucks into existence?” suggested one anonymous poster. “Announce free coffee for all illegals on a certain date. August 11? 11 looks like II (for illegal immigrant). I’m open to suggestions there. Name a liberal place for all illegals to go at once and demand free stuff. Thoughts?”

It could easily be an email from someone in the marketing or social media department within a company looking for ideas for a campaign. But it was quickly developed and acted upon by other contributors to 4chan and soon went viral.

As consultants on crisis communications and people who help companies and individuals to prepare for and combat crises of all varieties we’re particularly interested in any new threat to our clients and to other companies. The corporate fake news risk is big and it’s growing fast.

PepsiCo versus Trump?

The FT quotes cases such as Ulta a beauty chain, which was apparently closing following a buyout and a story of an Xbox console killing a teenager. The piece goes on to quote Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, a fact checking site, on this growing menace: “It hurts businesses financially and it also makes things toxic for them by destroying trust and creating an atmosphere in which people don’t know who they can trust. It is the same tactics that were levelled on us as a country, really.”

To take another example. Last year PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi apparently told supporters of Donald Trump to “take their business elsewhere.” 

Great story. Except, of course, that Ms Nooyi had said no such thing. As some websites carried this particular fake news item and even encouraged readers to boycott the soft drink company’s products, PepsiCo was forced to put out statements denying the story. A survey showed that its average sentiment score (a type of approval rating) dipped by 35 per cent at the time that the fake quote was published.

How does Fake News affect corporate reputation?

Combating fake news

In fact Ms Nooyi had expressed some concerns about Mr Trump and, in particular his remarks about women. This, it seems, provided that grain of truth that the creators of fake news use to develop a complete media story. Similarly, white supremacists began spreading stories through a site called The Daily Stormer that trainer brand New Balance was the “official brand of the Trump Revolution.” In fact the company had simply said that “things are going to move in the right direction,” with Mr Trump as president but this was only regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership.

So how can corporations combat the growing threat fake news? As is the case with any crisis communications, they should start by ensuring that their “peacetime” communications are active and that their message is simple and backed up with examples or proof points. It’s a lot more difficult for a fake story to spread about how wicked your company is if it’s already well known for its ethical stance.

Be prepared

Get ready to respond quickly. You need to be constantly monitoring social media and have a very short, responsive crisis communications chain of command. That means that as soon as anyone, however junior, spots something untoward on any social media website or a call centre representative gets a call with a strange question or comment from a member of the public (which could be a journalist in disguise, of course) they can pass it on for action to be taken very quickly.

Developing personal contacts with journalists and other opinion formers works well here. According to a survey by Gorkana UKPulse 10,050 nationally-representative respondents across the UK investigating trust nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of those asked valued personal contacts as markedly more trustworthy than other sources.

Is fake news really affecting PR?

Have you crisis manual ready

As we say during the crisis media communications courses that we run for hotels, airlines, hospitals, retailers and others, you need to have a crisis manual that is up to date and easily accessible to all relevant staff. That includes crisis statements that are drafted and ready to be simply tweaked as necessary and released.

Each corporation will have its own tone of voice and we’ve worked with a wide variety of brands to develop the language they use with all their audiences. However, if you’re combatting fake news on social media you’ll need to say something that is assertive and serious but not pompous or aggressive. Formal, corporate language will usually have the opposite of what it intends and will make you look panicked and defensive. Conversational, natural language works well here. Humour can also be effective if used carefully.

Facebook’s announcement that it will be working to curb fake news is to be welcomed, of course, as is the increase in sales and subscriptions for publications such as the Economist, The New York Times and the Financial Times that are known for their accuracy and political independence.

On the other hand, as people around the world express growing scepticism about business and even hostility to multinational corporations the appetite for stories that attack or embarrass big brand names is sure to grow. Fake news attacks on corporations are set to increase and corporate communications experts and PR consultancies need to be ready to defend their brands.

We’ve already had interest from clients about crisis communications courses that handle this new threat. It’s a very sensible one given that no one knows who might be next.

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Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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