Fake news has become a buzzword that is constantly being tossed around by journalists and politicians alike. For months now, it has been viewed as an anti-hero of sorts in the realm of communication. However, what does disinformation mean to companies and brands? How should communications experts respond to false information?
Reports appear on an almost daily basis about “fake news”: information that is manipulated, false, or simply made up. Tap the phrase into a search engine and you will get hundreds of thousands of recent results. Until quite recently, a heated debate about fake news raged on Twitter. The debate was sparked by Twitter administrators’ decision to refrain from blocking the profile of Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, a portal which is notorious for polarizing opinions and popularizing conspiracy theories (one of Jones’ claims is that the shootings in American schools in 2012 were staged and that the victims were actors). Opinions about the decisions of Twitter’s management are divided, while the issues under discussion are fundamental: they concern the freedom of expression and the responsibilities of the individuals and the media that disseminate information. The latest debate about Infowars focalizes what media and their audiences have experienced over the past months in terms of information circulation, reliability, and the influence of false information on public opinion.
A common problem
Distorted information is detrimental to political regimes, economies, and individual citizens. It is not only about politics, but also about our right to trustworthy information about products, people, and institutions. The addition of fake news into the mix has implications for the way businesses function, and for business communication in particular. This is especially true for those people who create content professionally, such PR experts. The world of traditional and social media is thus compelled to redefine how it addresses issues related to the creation, circulation, and control of content. How does fake news affect corporate communication? What questions does corporate communication raise and how does it impact day-to-day decisions made by the persons involved?
From the point of view of businesses, fake news is not limited to any single aspect of brand communication or corporate management. The problem is multidimensional as misinformation targeting a business poses a serious threat to corporate reputation and may also adversely affect the behaviors of its customers. The divergent approaches of different media outlets to the growing information crisis (such as that of Facebook, which unlike Twitter, decided to block Infowars content), the policies adopted by corporate managements, and their relationship with communications departments, force PR experts to take exceptional and unprecedented steps. This year’s European Communication Monitor survey on fake news, conducted in 48 countries, reveals the sheer extent of the problem we are facing. The data show that fake news has seriously tarnished the reputations of nearly 23 percent of European organizations. It comes as no surprise that the main source of fake news is social media platforms, which are responsible for nearly 82 percent of false information. According to CEOs and PR and communications experts who responded to the survey, traditional media generates nearly 60 percent of distortions. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of the organizations that admit they are combatting the problem, have sought to actively remedy the situation.
Developing a brand reputation strategy
Let us consider for a moment the question of how false information may affect a company and its brand reputation. This question goes to the heart of the matter. The companies that are building their image today have to cope with mainstream media becoming less relevant. Communications experts must realize that the information they release will quickly take on a life of its own. This means that it often ends up on any number of websites or information portals (often of dubious reputation), and may be endlessly reproduced even by the target audience, with changes in format, content, and meaning being made constantly as it circulates. Gone is the time when a communications professional had complete end-to-end control over the flow of information in the public sphere. One may ask whether, in an effort to prevent information manipulation and distortion, a brand should develop a clear strategy to address this danger? Is that even possible? I think that, to a certain degree, it is. Devoting time and attention to building such a preemptive strategy has become key to every company’s information security. One effective method includes establishing one’s own information center. This is known as owned media strategy. Rather than focusing on sending information to the media, we to some extent supplant their role as an intermediary. We promote our own platform where readers can access fact-checked information.
New media are the breeding ground for fake news
One reason behind the proliferation of false information is the increased involvement of social media in our lives. Fake news thrives in this environment. This is where fake news often originates and spreads like wildfire. A study conducted by Statista showed that, in the United States in 2017, 42 percent of false information was generated with the help of social media. Considering that social media are a prime general source of information to many Americans, this poses a significant threat to the reliability of information. How should a communications professional approach social media? I think that a fundamental duty of any communications expert today is to constantly monitor social media sites (there are many tools on the market that serve that purpose as well as a number of companies providing this type of service). Only a decisive response to the emergence of fake news, rapidly addressing one’s audiences by releasing appropriate commentaries may save a company from a crisis. I also believe that a communications expert must, to the greatest extent possible, attempt to contact the administrators of social media sites and instances of false information should be regularly reported.
Believing and disbelieving customers
The new situation we face today largely has to do with the attitude of customers and their relationship to media and information in general. Contemporary audiences are flooded with messages. While they are free to choose the sources of information they use, they are increasingly molded by fake news. Under the influence of negative trends, contemporary media consumers tend to distance themselves from, and mistrust, the content they encounter. They have become highly skeptical. Meanwhile, as media professionals and PR experts would undoubtedly acknowledge, consumers today are less capable of distinguishing between different types of information. The majority of them are unable to distinguish between marketing, news, and advertising. How should one address the problem? By returning to the strategy. The policy of communicating with audiences and raising awareness of the reliable “format” of the message are of utmost importance. In the age of fake news, one must do everything to demonstrate to audiences that one stands for honest communication practices. A sustained effort will help the audiences realize where they can find reliable information about companies and, hopefully, tell the difference between valuable and fake or sensational content about the company.
The new situation that board members, marketing journalists, PR experts, and audiences are all facing demands that sources be checked at all times. On a daily basis, one must verify who is authoring content, how messages are generated, and how they are published. To control information flows, even on a very basic level, good communication practices need to be employed. These include well-edited and checked texts, solid insights, and a constant, positive relationship with audiences, whether it is journalists or customers. Such a fair information policy should also be implemented and enforced in internal communication channels. When confronted with the content they generate, company employees should feel it meets the highest standards. Corporate communication is no place for fake news.
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