In the Age of Fake News, it Pays to Build Real Relationships

Imagine a video showing a major defect in your company’s product emerge on social media, or an audio of your chief executive making negative comments about upcoming financial results appear on YouTube out of nowhere. You are fairly certain it is fake, yet it looks and sounds incredibly real. The clip goes viral, reporters come calling for a comment, sensational headlines appear in the press, and concerned investors rush to sell the stock. What do you do?

The scourge of fake news has been mostly associated with politics until recently, but it is rapidly becoming a major concern for businesses, posing serious threat to the integrity of corporate brands and their bottom lines.

In October 2018, for example, an official-looking memo on Department of Defense letterhead began circulating on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to review Broadcom’s proposed $19 billion takeover of CA Technologies. Shares of both companies took a hit on the news, before the memo was revealed as a fake. Another bogus story widely circulated online asserted that Coca-Cola had recalled Dasani bottled water due to the presence of aquatic parasites.  

According to a recent study, online fake news now costs the global economy $78 billion annually and has cost the stock market $39 billion a year. 

New Incarnation of an Old Problem  

Use of deliberate disinformation is not a new phenomenon. Procter & Gamble, for example, became a subject of a mad rumor in the early 1980s that parts of its profits was going to satanic cults. The company filed several lawsuits, and in 2007 won a case against a group of Amway distributors, who used the hoax to advance their own business.

What is new today, however, is the sophistication of technology that is propelling the fake news problem to a whole new level.

Advancements in AI and machine learning have led to the rapid rise of so-called deepfakes – digitally manipulated audio and video showing people saying things they never said or doing things they never did. It’s nearly impossible for the naked eye to distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake.

Also new is the proliferation of social media that’s making the spread of falsehoods easy and fast. Research shows that fake news spreads quicker and wider on Twitter than truth, thanks to human nature.

In addition, a growing number of Americans now get their news on social media. That leads to content getting separated from context, which people need to properly evaluate the veracity of the information, where it came from, or how it was produced.

Journalists are also at more risk of being duped by misinformation on social media as majority routinely use platforms like Twitter to monitor for new developments (73 percent), find story ideas (60 percent) and gather additional information (54 percent), according to researchers.

Strong Relationships Are Essential to Rapid Response

In this environment, where fake news has the potential to spread like wildfire and cause irreparable damage, the ability to act quickly and effectively is critical for companies big and small.

Companies that are best positioned to succeed in addressing fake news are those with deep relationships with two key constituents: customers and journalists. Customers have the power to drive or destroy a company, and journalists have the power to influence that choice.

At the heart of both relationships is trust, which takes time to build and nurture. Brands that do it right will gain “goodwill capital” they can draw on during a crisis. They will also have an easier time cutting through the information noise.

Relationships with Reporters Matter More than Ever

The good news is that companies today understand the importance of consumer trust. Many brands have invested in building authentic relationships with their customers focusing on shared values and engagement.

The bad news is that many companies are not investing enough in building relationships with journalists, while this investment may be more important than ever. Companies sometimes mistakenly think that they can rely on owned and shared channels to correct the misinformation. While these are important, they are not enough.

Fewer corporate communications professionals are making concerted effort to stay in touch with media when there’s no news, according to PRWeek/Cision 2019 Global Comms Report. Moreover, chief executives rank shared and owned media much higher than earned media as the most valuable to their companies’ future, another study finds, seemingly underestimating the influence of traditional media.

Yet with proliferation of fake news, which Americans see as a big problem, information consumption has been shifting to traditional news organizations. While people still use various sources – social platforms, print, television, radio, online media – most rate traditional media as far more trustworthy, according to Columbia Journalism Review.

News organizations, particularly business media, are investing in forging deeper relationships with consumers, emphasizing engagement with niche audiences over broad reach, and building communities.  Many established journalists frequently interact with their audiences on social media, building visibility and credibility for themselves at the same time. Subscriptions at traditional media outlets are up, and trust in the media is rebounding. The 2018 survey by The Poynter Institute found that 54 percent of Americans trust national media and more than 70 percent trust their local TV news and local newspapers.

Real Relationships Take Time to Build

A crisis is not the time for a company to get to know its key media. You will have harder time getting your message across and aligning your interests with the reporter, if you are reaching out to him/her for the first time when the situation is unfolding. It pays to invest in building real connections in advance to understand how a particular reporter works, his/her personality quirks as well as to create lines of communication and build mutual trust.

Starting early is particularly important for smaller companies, that already struggle to get the attention of a dwindling number of reporters working with limited resources on tight deadlines.

Like all people, journalists trust people, not companies. Let key reporters get to know your spokespeople and executives as human beings, not just talking heads. Journalists bear the brunt of the fake news menace, so they have a vested interest in building relationships they can trust and know who to call to fact-check information or get a comment.

Other Important Steps

Of course, simply having relationships is not enough to effectively counter misinformation. Companies need make potential for fake news part of their crisis management planning. They should closely monitor social and digital media to stay ahead of threats, and have a system to get to the facts as soon as possible. 

Technology firms are working on tools that can detect deepfakes, but for now those solutions are not available. One way to protect your company is to record appearances by key executives so that you have original footage in case a fake emerges.

Building trusting relationships with employees and having a robust internal communications plan is also important. Employees not only may serve as eyes and ears on social media but can help amplify company’s message with their own online communities during a crisis.

It is also prudent to build relationships with appropriate people at social media companies, who can help take down fake content quickly, as well as provide insights into algorithms driving the spread of misinformation. In a recent development, Facebook announced banning videos that’s been doctored using artificial-intelligence tools, however it will not remove all altered content.

Finally, understand your legal options. Because this is a relatively new phenomenon, there aren’t yet many examples of fake news peddlers being held liable. That said, depending on the situation, current law may provide some strong protections and course of action for businesses under attack.

The fake news problem is going to get worse before it gets better. According to Gartner, by 2022 most people in mature economies will consume more false information than true information. The time for companies to start building defense capabilities, including relationships they can leverage, is now.