Will fake news change the game?

Should companies emulate Trump’s aggressive strategy? And how should they manage the increased risks of doing business in a post-factual world?

Image: Gage Skidmore

Trump defied many expectations in winning the presidency, and he has continued to defy most notions of how to communicate and handle the media during his first days in office. Many argue we now live in a post-factual world in which perception matters more than the truth, where posturing is more important than substance, and where facts can be ‘alternative’. Social media allow for instant and virulent spread of misinformation, and tech giants like Facebook are reluctant to assume responsibility for the reliability of their platforms’ vast deluges of content.

Trump’s success is not about brilliant communication

Considering the success of the Trump campaign, perhaps the rules of the game have changed and companies too can benefit from a more aggressive approach? Should companies care less about details and more about making bold statements? I would strongly advise against that. Trump did not succeed because of brilliant communication. In fact, most people would probably agree that he is far more clumsy than eloquent and his message more crude than deliberate. If he brought any innovation to the communication game, arguably it was in his campaign’s use of psychographics and big data.

But what we see is not as much a changing communication paradigm – it is a social change. For years, politics used to be about credibility; about who we wanted to trust. Now, apparently, it is about who can articulate our mistrust. It has become about giving voice to a deep, popular frustration. About challenging the establishment, assigning blame, and acting up.

That can never be the role of private companies. So, businesses should still stick to the facts as demands for transparency, accountability, and corporate scrutiny continue to increase. However, companies must also be prepared to fight against fake news, and be ever more vigilant and prepared in their efforts to protect their reputation.

Three trends to consider

How to prepare for the fight against fake news about your company sweeping across social media? It can get ugly and it will be tough. But it starts with recognizing three key trends:

  • Criticism is more democratized than ever. Any of the myriad of online voices can gain traction and become a chorus of criticism relentlessly bearing down on your company. If the criticism is justified, then too bad, you need to get your act together. But what if it isn’t? Then you want to react as fast as possible. That is why companies should listen very closely to what is buzzing on social media. Modern software allows companies to track in great detail everything that is said about your company, your products, and your issues in real time – so use it.
  • Prepare to get personal. It becomes increasingly difficult for CEOs to hide behind company spokespersons. Accountability, visibility and relatability matter more. That challenges top management, but can also give new powers to the CEO, if she can seize these opportunities. But the more personal communication gets, the harder it becomes to master. Just consider these two situations: saying no in a business deal versus having a verbal disagreement with your spouse. If fake news appears about your company it is harder to refute and respond to if it is also about you as a person. Prepare to handle these attacks – they will become more frequent in the future. It helps if you stand for something before you get attacked. You want to build your public persona before a crisis, not during.
  • Facts need more persuasion. As the battle heats up over what is a fact, it will take more persuasion to refute misinformation. Often, misinformation has spread because it plays on peoples’ preconceptions of you or your company. Not only will you need to prove them wrong, you'll also need to do it in an equally viral and persuasive way to counteract its negative impact. It's a  tall order, because you also need to act fast. Traditionally, PR has spent a lot of time and energy coming up with ideas for campaigns or events – in the future they will also spend a lot of time on quick and creative responses to falsehoods. If done elegantly, creatively, and with grace, refuting fake news can improve your image and strengthen your reputation.

Follow Søren on Twitter at @SFriisLarsen

Søren Friis Larsen

Søren Friis Larsen is director of stakeholder relations with Caliber, a brand consultancy based in Copenhagen that helps companies build strong and lasting character. He has worked extensively with a number of industries especially knowledge intensive business services and holds a degree in political science as well as an executive MBA.