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When the Fake News Is About Your Company

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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Fake news on social media stymied the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Now, businesses are wondering what they should do if they’re targeted next.

For some, it’s too late. Pepsi’s chief executive never told Trump supporters to “take their business elsewhere,” but websites still falsely claimed she did. Coca-Cola had to deal with bogus reports that a “clear parasite” in Dasani bottled water had sent hundreds to the hospital. And in December, a 28-year-old man drove six hours to a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor and fired a rifle after reading fake news claiming that Hillary Clinton was leading a child sex slavery operation there.

The threat has corporate executives rattled. “A lot of companies are trying to figure out how to respond if they’re targeted,” said Peter Duda, head of the global crisis and issues practice at the communications firm Weber Shandwick, which is leading an initiative that will bring media and marketing-industry stakeholders together to discuss how to fight fake news.

Meanwhile, the country’s professional society of public relations practitioners, the Public Relations Society of America, asked me to deliver the keynote speech at their upcoming regional conference on how practitioners can prepare for and respond to such attacks. PRSA members are nervous their companies could become the next targets.

Here’s how companies can plan for and address possible fake news about their businesses:

  1. Communicate values in advance.

Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist, says it’s critical for businesses to communicate their values ahead of time, so they have a record to point to if they need to defend themselves. “The time to start this isn’t when you’re under attack,” she said.

  1. Use employees as advocates.

Gaines-Ross recommends communicating these values internally as well as externally, because when a company is criticized, people often turn to employees for information. “Most people believe ordinary employees before they’ll believe a very senior officer of a company,” she said. “They turn to people they know from Little League or PTA meetings or at the register at the local market. So inform employees and count on them to be advocates. Employees know what’s going on, and they will rally to defend the truth.”

  1. Don’t inadvertently fund non-mainstream news sites.

Many companies purchase blocks of online advertising that are allocated to particular websites by robots, which means businesses may not know where on the internet their ads will appear. That means could inadvertently advertise on fake or hateful news sites. Last year, for example, an ad for Fiat Chrysler got the wrong kind of national attention after it ran on a fake news site next to a story claiming that Yoko Ono had an affair with Hillary Clinton. The good news is that businesses can set guidelines blocking their ads from particular sites, or only advertising on a “white list” of websites whose values they support.

  1. Write responses in advance.

Because trending topics change so rapidly on social media, it’s important for businesses to have answers to possible criticism prepared and approved so they’re ready to post if attacked. “You have very little time to respond because the conversation is changing so rapidly that people are quickly on to the next topic,” Gaines-Ross said. “If it takes you 48 hours to get internal approval on a response, by the time you do it, you’re just reviving the story.”

Duda warns that the tone of such messages is important. “Be authentic, not overly emotional or critical,” he advised. “Don’t play the victim, but rather be the trusted provider of information.”

He also says that if fake news does spread, it can be smart for companies to take out paid ads on social media so that audiences searching for information on Google find the business’s message rather than the false reports.

  1. Choose your battles.

Duda advises clients to focus on “moving the movable.” As he explained: “Some people aren’t open to facts. You should make sure that you’re spending your time and resources talking to people who want to hear what you have to say and understand your position.” Customers, for example, are probably interested in what a business has to say, while bloggers intent on advancing extreme political views will likely be less open-minded. Duda says it’s important to understand where such audiences get their information in advance, so companies know how to reach them rapidly.

  1. Consider legal action.

Public-relations executives normally counsel clients not to sue the media. “It’s the last thing we tell clients,” said Duda. But the rules are different for fake news: “Normally, even in the blogosphere, people try to be factual. What’s different today is you have publications where facts don’t matter and there’s no traditional way of sitting down with a reporter or editor to get the fact right.” In those cases, Duda says, it may be impossible to get a story corrected or deleted without legal action.

“There is no better place to confront the purveyors of fake news than the American courtroom,” said Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor and Washington-based partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “Civil discovery, sworn depositions, and the prospect of a public trial offer the only effective mechanism to put these people under oath, find out who is funding them, and whose interests they are serving,” he said. “That’s very powerful stuff.”

MacDougall says that even if the websites’ backers appear to be well-funded, it’s still possible to win a civil suit by showing harm and reckless disregard for the truth. “There are lots of good lawyers in this country who will take on cases without pay to expose bad conduct like fake news,” he added.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kara Alaimo at kara.s.alaimo@hofstra.edu