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  • Ran Margaliot

Brands Beware: Fake News Can Destroy Your Reputation

Updated: Apr 2

Stories and claims of “fake news” are everywhere as we enter the 2020 election cycle. However, politicians are not the only ones who need to prepare for false or misleading information being spread on the internet. Brands need to be aware that they too can be victims of “fake news” attacks

Why Does Fake News Spread?

Content spreads when the rumors resonate with an audience’s beliefs.

There are several reasons false information is created. Some satire goes viral with downstream recipients not realizing that the story is meant for humorous, not informational, purposes. Other times, nefarious web sites use misinformation as “click bait” to attract advertising dollars. Some individuals create highly opinionated articles based on their own false beliefs.


Additionally, politicians can sometimes suffer from “fake news” when their opponent or their opponent’s supporters want to attack them, but this is less of a problem for brands.


Generally, fake news contains a grain of truth which lends it credibility. Other times, an otherwise true article contains a misleading headline for clickbait purposes. When shared on social media, the headline is often the only thing most consumers read.


Content spreads when the rumors resonate with an audience’s beliefs.


How Bad is the Problem for Brands?


Fake news itself has a credibility problem. Consumers tend to take the source of the information into account when evaluating the claims. When false information is spread on a reliable news site, consumers are more alarmed than when it is on a site they do not know or already distrust.


The strength of the brand is important as well. Researchers at North Carolina State University found that Coca-Cola did not take a reputational hit when a story spread that their Dansai-brand water had to be recalled because it contained aquatic parasites.


The story was first “reported” on News4KTLA. While there is a channel 4 news in Los Angeles with the call sign KTLA, the site itself was not affiliated with the news organization. Instead, it was a clickbait site monetized by advertisements.


Individual Facebook users were misled into believing the information because there have been numerous recalls of food products because of contamination. However, this story was not true. Coca-Cola immediately put out a statement which said that no Dansai products had been recalled and the FDA announced that no recall orders had been issued. Snopes also wrote an article debunking the claim.


The NCSA study showed that consumers evaluated the credibility of the reporting site when thinking about the claim. They also found that when consumers were educated about the nature of fake news, they became more skeptical of the claim. Additionally, those naturally skeptical about Facebook were more likely to quickly dismiss the information.


While Coca-Cola did not suffer from any lasting reputational impact, lesser known brands may have a difficult time recovering.  A second study from the University of Bologna found that when false information was reported in a credible news source, consumers’ attitudes toward brands and their propensity to buy the product both dropped.


What Should You Do If You’re the Victim of False News?


Any company can fall victim to false news at any time. Therefore, you should have a crisis response team and plan in place before such an event happens.


You also need to have a reputation monitoring system in place so you can quickly detect when your brand is tarnished by false information. Afrogata, for instance, allows brands to engage and manage their online brand using an array of algorithms built using NLP and AI. This allows you to quickly identify narratives, anomalies, and trends on social media as well as identify bot networks spreading the disinformation.


When you are unfairly attacked, you should take the time to respond properly. A rushed response roll out can further damage the brand. Instead, take the time to evaluate the claims and the source, examine consumer reactions, and prepare an effective and appropriate statement.


You can approach the situation by denying the claim, attacking the source, and publicly evaluating the motivations behind the story.


You should further consider what media you use to respond. It may take days for a press release to work to spread the information. You may need to pitch the story directly to media including fake news debunking sites like Snopes. You may also wish to put a statement directly on your website and pay for social media advertisements to promote your own story. Give users the ability to link to the “real news” in response to a friend’s misleading claim. Further, thank those who debunk the lies. This can turn a negative story into an army of brand advocates.


Be transparent in any response. If there is a kernel of truth to the article, don’t make a bad story worse by denying any true information. To the extent that your company does bear any fault, acknowledge it and demonstrate you are trying to address the problem.


Finally, involve your own staff and stakeholders in the response. They may be concerned that their own jobs may not be secure if the story takes hold. They can also be instrumental in combating the misinformation and having the resources and tools to do so can help quickly dismiss the story.


Fake news is unpleasant, but unfortunately it is an increasingly common part of the online landscape. You can help protect your brand by preemptively establishing credibility in the marketplace and quickly identifying and responding to attacks.

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