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How to prepare for and manage a fake news attack

Fake news emerged as a major political issue after the US Presidential election; but it is also a potentially damaging new reputational risk. David Honour looks at the issue; considers how organizations could be targeted; and gets the views of two crisis management experts on how organizations can respond.

Fake news has always been around. Previously it was mainly the realm of governmental propaganda and some tabloid journalists; nowadays, with the growth of social media, it has become both a more widespread issue. In a 2012 article for MediaShift, journalist Amy Vernon stated that due to the growth of social media ‘we are all publishers now;’ four years on, this is even more the case. With this change in society has also come new opportunities for those who wish to manipulate groups of people, their views and their beliefs. This came to a head following the recent Presidential election in the United States, with various commentators pointing to the creation of fake news stories and their propagation around social media as being, potentially, one of the decisive aspects of the election. The same issue was evident in the UK, with fake news being widespread during the Brexit referendum campaigning.

Considering Facebook’s role in the US Presidential election, Jim Preen, head of media at Crisis Solutions, commented:

“Fake news can be harmless fun if you think of the likes of The Daily Mash or News Thump in the UK or The Onion in the US. These are clearly satirical and humorous. But there is a darker side as was seen during the US presidential election where hoaxes, misinformation and black propaganda proliferated.

“Fake news is amplified by social media; particularly Facebook and Twitter. Initially, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as ‘pretty crazy’ the idea that fake news influenced the US election. 

“He’s changed his tune somewhat saying in a recent post on Facebook: “The bottom line is we take misinformation seriously. Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We've been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We've made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”

“The problem with fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other social media is that there is almost no context so sometimes it’s hard to understand where a story is coming from. The truth gets murkier still when hoaxers use Clone Zone, which allows them to create fake websites based on trusted news sources.”

For businesses, fake news also represents an emerging reputational risk. It is a relatively easy method for activists, disgruntled customers, or even competitors, to use to launch an attack on the corporate reputation of a target. If the fake story is interesting enough it could quickly transmit to thousands, or even millions, of people around the world.

While it may be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent future fake news attacks occurring; there are certainly measures that can be taken to manage such a crisis. Jonathan Hemus, managing director of Insignia, a crisis management consultancy, suggests that the following five steps will help to ensure that your organization’s reputation is protected in the event of fake news emerging:

Prepare a rapid response capability
Scenario plan how you would address fake news and involve critical members of your senior team in this activity. Agree roles and responsibilities and, critically, the steps you would take to initiate your company’s response. Identify where you need additional resources, people or technology to ensure you can act quickly and effectively. Make sure approval procedures are clear.

Monitor the landscape
Given that the key to addressing fake news is speed, knowing what is being said about you at the earliest opportunity is a pre-requisite for reputation protection. Establish a comprehensive realtime monitoring capability which alerts you to mentions of your brand in traditional media, online and social media.

Calibrate your response (quickly)
Whilst speed is of the essence, a kneejerk reaction to the first appearance of fake news can turn a small flame into a raging inferno. You need to quickly determine whether this is likely to be an unnoticed blip or the beginning of a monumental reputational challenge.

Use three criteria to calibrate the pro-activity of your response:

  • How damaging are the allegations being made?
  • How many people are talking about it?
  • How influential are the people commenting on it?

Pre-agreed triggers will help to guide your response based on the answers to these three questions.

Correct inaccuracies and communicate your own narrative
Assuming you have determined that pro-active communication is the appropriate response, communicate quickly and expansively. Address inaccuracies head on and fill online, social and traditional media with accurate information about your business. If necessary, consider using paid-for media (for example, Google AdWords) to ensure that your message is getting through.

Brief your key stakeholders directly
Prioritise the people most important to your business and use your own channels (your website, social media feeds, intranet and face to face contact) so that they hear the truth about your business directly from you. Critically, make sure that your staff are briefed as a top priority. Not only is it essential that they continue to trust the organization which employs them, armed with the facts about the situation, they can be your best advocates when talking to other stakeholders.

Crisis Solutions’ Jim Preen, quoted earlier in this article, points out that Facebook has now introduced a way to flag up fake news: when you find a story that is obviously false, or looks that way, click on the upside-down arrow at the top right of the post. A drop-down box will allow you to ‘Report Post’, click on that and you will be given the option to suggest it should not be on Facebook, the final step is to flag the story as fake news. If enough people do this, its circulation on Facebook should diminish.

Other pointers from Jim are:

  • Companies need to be vigilant with regard to social media monitoring. If fake news about your organization is circulated on social media platforms, contact those platforms and demand the story is taken down.
  • If the fake news story is on Facebook get as many staffers as possible to go through the process of flagging the story as fake news; as outlined above.
  • Don’t get in an online fight with the fake news site, that is something they might relish, but rather put out a statement making it very clear that this is fake news and has nothing to do with your organization.
  • Take the initiative and use social media to your advantage; state clearly what is true and what is false. We’ve got pretty savvy at detecting phishing emails, some of which look very real, we need to be equally savvy when it comes to fake news.

As fake news is an emerging crisis management issue; it would be useful to receive some real-world case studies of how organizations have dealt with a fake news attack. If you have such a case study, or simply want to comment on the above article, please email editor@continuitycentral.com

The author

David Honour is the editor of Continuity Central.



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