Communications in the era of fake news

The rise of internet and digital media has changed the way we consume content in our daily lives. It has ensured that information reaches to millions instantly, irrespective of their location. It has made the concept of 24×7 real, with brands expected to be available and alert at all times and be responsive to customer queries. It has given power to the hands of the customers. Customer delight is something that brands cannot do without. While there are quite a few upsides to digital media, the biggest downside is that it has led to the spreading fake news.

What is fake news?

Fake news has become a buzzword today.  As the word suggests, fake news is incorrect information that is being claimed to be real. Fake news has been around for years, but the recent times have seen a proliferation in fake news, owing to the rise of technology that has ensured a more connected world.

Fake news is one of the biggest and most damaging forms of corporate warfare today. It can cause irreparable damage to individual or brand reputation. It is trickier than a usual negative story as it mushrooms from nowhere and without any heads-up. Also, the virality quotient of the news is much higher. Hence, brands are stuck with a dual crisis- to either find the source for the story or focus on addressing the damage.

Fake news has impacted the reputation of media houses as well. It has challenged the sheer privilege enjoyed by traditional media that considered itself the gatekeeper of news. It has questioned the credibility of news portals, as many of these ‘fake news’ items are increasingly being picked and reported by renowned portals. 

Fake news and its challenges

Fake news can not only spread false information about a brand or an individual, thereby impacting its reputation, but can also have catastrophic impact on brands and the society at large. One such case study is that of the fake news spreading across the migrant population in Delhi NCR and later on in Mumbai, in the middle of the national lockdown imposed to curb the pandemic this year. While billions of us were locked in our homes, there were lakhs of migrants who suddenly decided to reach a specific location as they were misinformed about special buses being run to their hometowns. They claimed that they have heard/ received messages apprising them about the same and hence, they walked for kilometers to reach the required point. At a time when the Central as well as the State Governments were trying everything in the book to ensure that the citizens practice social distancing, this kind of incident was not only a logistical challenge, but could have also led to a mass spread of the Covid 19 pandemic. This is the power of fake news!

Fake news can crop up from any nook or corner and has the power to spread like wildfire, all thanks to the digital media and platforms like Whatsapp. There are so many videos floating around on social media on the quality of food items we consume, use of expired ingredients in edible products, the lack of hygiene in manufacturing plants etc. etc. These videos can spread very quickly and end up impacting the brand reputation negatively. Fake news can take down organizations, crush reputations of individuals and brands, and topple governments. Sadly, there is no sure shot way to avoid being a victim of fake news. It can impact one and all. So, it is important for brands to accept this as a harsh reality and be prepared for such scenarios.

Combating fake news- the communications way!

The biggest challenge with fake news is that one cannot really stop it from appearing. Neither can one have a sense of the timing or the source. Sometimes, it could have started as a result of a small miscommunication or misinterpretation. For communication professionals across the world, it is important to have a clear strategy to foresee a scenario (if possible) and proactively plan for the company’s response. It may not be possible to preempt a fake news, and hence, the speed of response is also the key.

While there are a few tips that the communication professionals can follow to ensure that fake news, if any, can do minimal damage to their brand, it is extremely critical that they control the message and ensure that the brand communicates directly with the audience at all times.

Admit if there is a mistake

No one is perfect and even brands can make mistakes. It takes courage to own up to these mistakes in front of the customers, and such actions are well appreciated by the customers today. However, when brands confess about their mistakes, they should also share the solution to address the problem at hand. They should have a clear roadmap on what they will do to ensure such an issue does not repeat itself.

Be transparent and clear in communication

Fake news can be best addressed with being factually correct and transparent. Brands need to ensure that their communication is clear, addresses the issue at hand and is supported by factual information. They should leverage the power of digital media to communicate instantly across all categories of customers, irrespective of location.

Speed is the key

With fake news, the key is the speed at which a company can address the problem. In case of fake news, it is important to also understand why (and for what reasons) someone would use fake news to damage your reputation. It always helps to be proactive (in terms of understanding what could come your way next) and have a rapid action plan in place. 

Employee conduct is important

It is important for brands to ensure that they avoid employee misconduct or posting controversial stuff online as this can impact/trigger fake news. There should be a clear code of conduct laid out by the brand and employees should be briefed about the critical role they play in weaving the overall brand equity. 

Leadership to be in sync

It is important for the leadership to be in sync with the brand communication/stance in such scenarios. It is recommended that all key leaders are briefed well about the brand’s point of view with regards to the fake news so that they all speak the same language. This will help amplify the message across channels and ensure that the message is not diluted at any level.

To conclude, fake news is for real and hence, it is best for PR and Communication professionals to be prepared to deal with such scenarios. The key is to stay calm, define a clear response and action it quickly. The response should collaborate well with the brand ethos and should be defined keeping the long-term brand reputation in mind. Brands should leverage their social media handles to post their view point, bust myths, address rumors and share correct information with their customers.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha heads PR and Communication at BharatPe. She has over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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