Fake News and Post-Truth: How Companies and Brands Can Cope


Although the term “Fake News” quickly became popular during and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it’s not a new concept. In the late 1800s, media baron publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled it out for media supremacy using “yellow journalism” – a style of reporting characterized by sensationalistic headlines and stories that were loosely based on fact, or even completely false. Hearst has been credited with (or accused of) influencing the political climate and events leading up to the United States’ declaration of war on Spain in 1898. His yellow journalism influence was made legend in the movie Citizen Kane, when the “Hearst character,” Charles Foster Kane, declared to his Havana-based photographer, “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war!” Sensationalism and misinformation have been around for centuries, practiced by militaries and government propagandists since well before the days of yellow journalism. So, what’s so different now? Answer: everything.

In the past, you needed significant resources to publish an idea that would reach and potentially influence millions of people. But the onset of the digital age shattered that paradigm. The cost of publishing any random thought or opinion and have it reach large audiences has been driven down to near zero. And Fake News doesn’t only happen in the world of politics — brands are also targeted. Anyone can say anything about your product and service and it can quickly reach a large audience and spiral out of control. Ace Hardware suffered a crisis in December 2016 due to fake news about the company’s treatment of people protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline. JeffreyGroup helped Johnson & Johnson in Brazil combat fake news about negative effects of Tylenol in cases of dengue. So, with this possibility in mind, here are five strategies for how brands can cope with fake news and protect their reputations in this post-truth era.

1. The first step in protecting your brand is monitoring. There are advanced media monitoring and social listening tools at your disposal. If someone in your organization isn’t assigned to this or doesn’t have the time, it’s worth paying someone else to keep watch and alert you when there are signs of trouble. Digital crises snowball quickly in real time. A good monitoring effort could significantly improve your response time and damage control.

2. It’s important to have a crisis plan in place before a crisis happens. You should also practice your crisis response. At JeffreyGroup, we run crisis drills with clients, complete with negative social media posts, incendiary media headlines and calls from journalists for comment. Any crisis requires a tailored response, but there is much you can do ahead of time to prepare.

3. The ‘brand as publisher’ trend is one way companies are dealing with changing media consumption habits, and it’s also a way to help protect a brand’s reputation. Companies are creating direct channels to their target audiences and investing in the creation of content that is relevant, useful and inspiring. Being a trusted and valued source of information and content can help a brand weather an attack on its reputation.

4. Influencer engagement delivers some of the third-party credibility traditionally achieved by being published in an independent news source. Sometimes brands are reluctant to cede control, which is actually what makes influencer programs so powerful. There’s a delicate balance between credibility and sponsorship that must be managed.

5. Don’t go it alone. A proactive stakeholder engagement program is essential for helping to establish, grow and protect a company’s reputation. The first step is identifying potential allies as well as opponents. Seek out those that have common interests and objectives and develop opportunities to collaborate. A company or brand with strong ties within a community and market will be able to deal with a business threat or reputational crisis from a position of strength.

There is a lot that is beyond a company’s control in this post-truth era. But Fake News may actually turn out to be the best thing to happen for business communications. It makes us think about what’s important, how we should plan and act, and what we want to be.