Lies have been re-branded.
Incorrect information is now being labeled as “fake news” the world over. While the definition of “fake news” is extraordinarily elastic, companies can be hit with information that is demonstrably false online. And with the importance of search results in establishing customer reputation and attracting prospects, the toxic impact of a single fake post can linger on for months or even years.
Reputable publications like Bloomberg, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal will steer clear of baseless assumptions or at least provide companies the opportunity to explain or contextualize allegations against them. But what has changed over the past decade is the plethora of outlets where incorrect information is validated and spread.
Fake news bubbles up from suspicious websites and can spread quickly across social media. Soon inaccurate stories can be in dozens, if not hundreds of places. As we saw in the last American election, the consequences can be immense.
For financial companies, it is imperative that fake news is spotted and action is taken to minimize its impact.
The best response starts with understanding the scope of the problem. That means ongoing, vigilant monitoring. There is no one comprehensive solution to filtering mentions of key terms. The best solution is one that evolves over time, understanding why something fell through the cracks and putting in procedures to capture it. Google Alerts are a good start, but most professional firms also turn to a third-party social listening service to supplement complimentary tools.
Equally important as catching something is making sure it reaches the right eyes. Too much information is as dangerous as not enough – find ways to filter out common results and focus on things that truly deserve a response. Create a list of executives who both understand what is going on at the highest levels of the company and have the power to approve a course of action.
About that response – be very careful. Companies often overreact when dealing with minor issues and end up creating a larger problem. Lawsuits, threatening letters from lawyers and executive posts on LinkedIn should be saved for serious circumstances and seldom make sense as a first line of attack.
Explore quiet alternatives first. With information that is misleading, try to understand if the error was made intentionally. If not, a message or (even better) a phone call, can encourage the poster to take down the information. When dealing with a journalist, request the conversation be off-the-record from the beginning of the call. You do not want to create a story about taking down another one.
If the poster is obscure, consider reaching out to the administrator of the information. Twitter and other social media platforms allow problematic information to be flagged, but be ready to submit concerns multiple times and have documentation ready to prove the information is inaccurate.
Matters of opinion can be trickiest to handle. There are things that while not being unprovable are still problematic. Consider this Tweet: “I think Coke will be out of business in a year.” Or this one: “I heard that the new phone won’t work.” Social media sites usually will not remove these posts, but they can be damaging.
Respond proportionally. If there is a conversation bubbling up on an issue, consider issuing a statement or placing an article in an industry publication that addresses the issue. There is no need to address commenters by name, or even that this is a “response.” Rather, place the information in the public in a way that reasonable people will draw a reasonable conclusion.
Companies confronting online trolls should consider being more transparent and open with the public. Sunlight is frequently both a wonderful disinfectant and a good way to put rumors to bed.
While the terminology continues to shift, many principles of clear and effective communication remain the same.
Jon Schubin is a vice president at Cognito in New York