How brands should deal with becoming targets of fake news

Mike Abel

One of the major marketing communications trends for 2016/2017 is that consumers
expect brands today to take a stand on important issues, be socially responsible and
comment on current events. Advertising agencies have social media newsrooms and
brands have social media war rooms so that they can position themselves in the
conversation. But what if that conversation is fake? What if brands become the target
of fake news? How do their marketing teams and ad agencies respond?

As a quote most often attributed to Mark Twain, states: “A lie can travel halfway
around the world before the truth gets its boots on.’

Fake news cannot be anticipated, controlled and often goes viral with its click bait
headlines and inflammatory content. Earlier this year, AdWeek in the US put it bluntly:
“Brands should prepare to be the next collateral damage’. They go as far as accusing
unscrupulous advertisers of practically inventing fake news: “When consumers begin
to question the legitimacy of ads, the result is a depreciating effect for brands.’

As the founder and CEO of advertising agency, M&C Saatchi, Mike Abel, explains:
“People want to believe the worst, people are not discerning enough. Sensationalism
sells and fake news has fertile ground to propagate on with social media.’

Abel agrees that as an advertising agency, they need to have far more “deep and
meaningful conversations’ with their clients about fake news, reputational damage
and about having well defined strategies in place if they are caught up in the fake
news maelstrom.

It is also the fault of some brands that people want to believe the worst, as Abel
points out, citing the example of the “abominable handling’ by Ford of the Ford Kuga
car fires. “It allows a conversation that may not be factual to follow that conversation
and becomes one of many examples of where people can attach their own stories to

Branding in a “post-truth’ era

Abel advises brands to be explicit, meaningful and concise in their conversations with
customers. “Brands need to be incredibly prepared in terms of their values, who they
associate themselves with. This notion of “post-truth’ shows us that facts are less
important in shaping opinion and personal attitude is driving “facts’, rather than actual
facts driving facts.’

This is no more apparent than in the rise and rise of social media. Says Abel: “With
social media being what it is today, and every consumer in the world literally having a
soapbox in their hands in terms of their mobile phones, how do you manage your own
narrative, how do you extricate yourself, and create a platform for robust

Nando’s does it very well, Abel says, becoming South Africa’s moral compass through
humour and satire, “speaking truth to power’. But where are the other brands, he
asks? Where is the conversation about brands spending money with discredited
media? Brands also have a responsibility to be authentic and real in everything they
do these days.

In the best brand example recently, MiWay insurance was the target of a fake email
campaign generated by a disgruntled customer. The email was racist in nature and
generated an outcry on Twitter when it surfaced, with many customers of the brand
saying they would move their business elsewhere.

The insurance company responded swiftly, denying the email came from them and
clarifying that it was fake and generated by an unhappy customer. “We are tracing the
source of this fake content on social media and will take strong and appropriate action
against anyone using our brand to disseminate offensive and derogatory comments,’
the company said in a statement at the time.

The email, which also named two MiWay employees, had, however, already gone viral
under the hashtag #miwayracism and generated massive negative publicity for the
brand and for the insurance industry in general. The disgruntled client, who was
traced and found to have had his claim rejected, met with and apologised to the
insurance company subsequently. MiWay in turn acknowledged that its communication
with the client could have been better and they gave the client the option to make the
public apology to MiWay and the two employees implicated in the fake email, or face
legal action.

In terms of the agreement, the perpetrator also agreed to give talks at MiWay’s CSI
initiatives about the dangers of social media, which was a savvy move by the brand
after having its name tarnished unfairly. And they took the moral high ground in not
laying charges against him in

Crisis communications strategy

Not all brands are fortunate in having damaging fake news so publically resolved and
for many, real damage is done to the bottom line and brand loyalty. Brands need to
have a strategy in place:

  1. 1. A fake news strategy should be part of every crisis communications plan and
    brand reputation management. And everyone responsible for a brand should
    understand how fake news arises and how to deal with it when you are targeted.
  2. Develop a sense for fake news and urban legends and hoaxes circulating on
    social media and understand how they emerge, whether around key events or trends
    or memes.
  3. Brands also need to work with platform owners and key influential media owners
    to verify and debunk fake news across platforms.
  4. Nothing on the internet ever dies. Be prepared for fake news to rise from the
    dead like zombies. Given how politicised social media is becoming and how trolls use
    it for fun to destroy people and brands, always be prepared to become part of the
    story, real or fake.
  5. Brand newsrooms which drive engagement with quality content and content that
    is sharable, should be the goal of every brand and their communications partners.
    Companies like GE, Reebok and NASA are cited by as being great
    examples of brands doing just that.
  6. When something goes wrong, don’t blame a junior employee. No one respects
    senior managers or CEOs who do not take responsibility for what happens in their
    organisation. It erodes brand trust internally and externally.
  7. A trusted brand can bank that trust in the good times and rely on it to some
    extent during times of crisis. Always be authentic and sincere in communication, have
    values that the consumer knows about, it may be enough to generate goodwill if a
    fake news scandal blows up your brand.
  8. Don’t support untrustworthy sites and discredited media sources. Why add fuel
    to the fake news fire? Marketers are also responsible for creating trusted
    communication and content.

– Louise Marsland


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