Most people have always been aware that what you read in the papers, see on TV or social media may not be 100% accurate. Anything that has been edited, re-written or re-presented will be coloured by the viewpoint of the person doing the editing – whether consciously or unconsciously. It may be a simple case of lack of space to give the full context, the selection of a soundbite that doesn’t really reflect the speaker’s argument or lack of time to research the background and check the facts. And most readers and viewers will know to make allowances for that.
The rise of #FakeNews, however, is a potential game-changer and has important implications for any organisation and its PR and communications programmes. Facebook and Google are promising to take action against fake news sites but what will happen about the instances that are less easy to spot – the spreading of rumours, the innocent repeating of inaccurate facts, misunderstandings. Social media and the web mean that any story can spread like wildfire and may then be picked up by mainstream media. What started as a simple mistake can do serious reputational damage.
If anything goes in the world of #FakeNews, how will your audiences know what to believe and how can you safeguard your profile and reputation? Here are five ways to protect your organisation:
- Be accurate. Make sure that all information emanating from your organisation is 100% correct. You cannot complain about inaccurate or misleading stories if your own press releases or tweets are not backed up by evidence. If you use statistics or data put them in context and reference them; if you want to say you are the market leader, make sure it’s true; and don’t deliberately obscure difficult facts. A good journalist will be knowledgeable about your sector and will check the information you are supplying. If you lose their trust it will be very hard to win it back.
- Be visible. If you have a strong public profile and maintain communications with your key audiences then it is far less likely that you will fall victim to a spoof or inaccurate story. Your stakeholders will already know you and have an understanding of how you operate to compare to the new information they are presented with. If your website is out of date and you keep a low profile, then any news about your company could be believed.
- Be consistent. Everything that is issued in releases, in articles, or on social media must reflect the values, policies and viewpoint of the organisation.
- Be vigilant (as Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter might say!). You cannot possibly hope to correct or even be aware of every inaccuracy that appears about you. Constant nit-picking and complaints about stories will alienate the media and be counter-productive. Major errors, however, need to be pursued – allowing inaccurate or damaging information to go unchallenged will result in the misunderstanding being perpetuated and may have serious consequences. Speak to the journalist concerned; point out what is wrong; back up your assertions; and be prepared to take it higher if necessary.
- Monitor your public profile. You need to know what people are saying about you either positive or negative so that you can direct your communications efforts where they are most needed.