Fake News and Your Brand

Claims of “fake news” have become a steady drumbeat among those attempting to discredit news they don’t like or reporting they feel is unfair. Yet, there also has been a growth in actual fake news – deliberate misrepresentations, dressed up as reality, that are intended to sway people toward a particular way of thinking.

It’s not all cloak-and-dagger. Buzzfeed last year reported that at least 30 websites encourage visitors to make up a fake news story and share it on Facebook. In one recent year, Buzzfeed said, those articles resulted in more than 13 million engagements.

Fake news, and the ability to easily distribute it, is not only bad for candidates and political parties, but also for brands. Have you heard the one about the restaurant that was closed down for serving human meat? Fake news. Yet, the rumor has circulated online for years, targeting specific restaurants around the world.

Political supporters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election called for a boycott against Pepsi over comments its CEO never made. The false reports, circulated on social media, used discredited fake news stories as their source. The incident had the single biggest negative impact on Pepsi’s reputation in 2016 and also contributed to a drop in its stock price.

Fake news is rampant in online product reviews as well. Ninety percent of shoppers say reviews impact their purchasing decisions. Yet, it’s possible to buy favorable reviews and to bombard your competitors with negative ones. In 2013, the state of New York announced fines of up to $100,000 against 19 companies accused of writing fake online reviews.

But your brand also courts danger if you aren’t diligent about where you promote it. Advertising on fake news sites – which can happen inadvertently through automated digital ad placements – can lead to embarrassment.

Despite the proliferation of fake news, Americans hate it, even if they don’t always recognize it. And that should be a warning. Origin/Hill Holliday surveyed 540 people ages 18 to 61 and asked what they would do if a brand they loved provided them with fake content. Nearly 60 percent said they would stop buying that brand. More than 35 percent said they would stop following the brand on social media.

What can we do to ensure that our brands don’t fall victim to fake news? We can’t control what others say about us. But we can lessen the impact by monitoring what’s being said on social media and on customer review sites. We can cultivate advocates on social media who are willing to help counter fake news when it impacts us. When we are attacked, we can check the claims immediately and, if false, respond right away with facts, doing so on the same channels in which the fake news appeared.

Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the 1980s TV drama “Hill Street Blues” may have said it best: Be careful out there!