How to protect your business from fake news

Reports that Coca-Cola had recalled its Dasani bottled water because of parasites turned out to be fake news.

United States President Donald Trump invokes the words “fake news” on a daily basis, but the phenomenon’s impact is not restricted to politics. Businesses are also becoming victims of fake news, ranging from hoaxes to malicious acts designed to damage an organisation’s reputation. Massey Business School senior lecturer Dr Jenny Hou says in our globalised and internet-connected world, organisations need to proactively combat fake news to protect their reputations.

“It’s not necessarily the ‘truth’, but the ‘perceived truth’ that is important when it comes to an organisation’s reputation and bottom line,” she says. “There’s no point in shifting the blame onto the media, technology, regulators or news consumers. Organisations need to take the initiative and develop long-term, proactive strategies for dealing with the challenges of fake news.” 

Dr Hou has recently returned to New Zealand after being awarded an Educator Fellowship from the Plank Center in the United States. She was the only researcher from a university outside the United States to be selected for the programme, which facilitates relationships between educators and PR professionals. 

Dr Hou was partnered with leading PR consultancy Burson-Marsteller and found that help in combatting fake news is coming from an unexpected quarter: public relations practitioners. At its New York office, Burson-Marsteller has pioneered the Professional Practices Committee on Fake News, with the aim of better preparing clients for the current media environment.

Dr Hou led a research project in conjunction with the committee to analyse cases where businesses have been affected by fake news, including how the incidents were portrayed in the media and how organisations responded.

“Fake news not only damages the reputation of the targeted company, but also the reputation of the media companies that report the fake facts,” she says. “So, Burson-Marstellar’s fake news committee really represents a new paradigm because PR consultants and journalists are working together to combat this phenomenon.”

Public relations researcher Dr Jenny Hou.

New Zealand is not immune

Dr Hou’s case studies included a hoax tweet about CNN accidentally broadcasting 30 minutes of pornography and a fake news website claiming Coca-Cola recalled its Dasani bottled water because parasites had been found in the product. She says that while fake news is not prevalent in New Zealand, no country is immune.

“New Zealand is a small market so there is not the same economic advantage to spreading fake news about a competitor, but there have been some cases reported,” she says.

She cites examples of companies posting negative comments about competitors on review websites and a story shared widely on social media that claimed the Kaikoura earthquake was caused by an oil company surveying for oil. 

Top tips for combating fake news

To combat fake news, Dr Hou’s research suggests organisations should develop what she calls “public relations literacy”.

“Media literacy is a well-accepted concept – it is the critical skill that news consumers need to spot and discern fake news,” she says. “But public relations literacy gives you the skills to articulate your story and protect your organisation from fake news.

“It’s a paradox that unethical PR can be the source of fake news, but PR can also be a very powerful weapon and positive way of protecting organisations from its impact.” 

She says that relationship building should be the cornerstone of an organisation’s PR activities, including aligning with credible mainstream media and fact check websites.

“Quality relationships with a wide range of stakeholders will count more than ‘words’ when dealing with the long-term impact of a fake news story,” she says.

Dr Hou also recommends proactive monitoring of what is being said about your organisation on social media, as well as observing how people are responding to those posts. It is also useful to collect a list of fake news and clickbait websites, she says, and to analyse how they operate and distribute their fake stories.

And when you respond to a fake news claim, it is essential to be authentic in your communication. “When preparing counter-arguments to a fake news story, be frank with media,” Dr Hou says. “If you have a history of being honest about your organisation’s achievements and limitations, when you confront fake news with your own correction, it is more likely to be believed and circulated.”

Read Dr Hou’s report, It’s your business to combat fake news: A manager’s guide to protecting your business:

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