By Dave Armon
While Congress examines the impact of fake news on the 2016 election, corporate executives are partnering with media watchdogs so they are better prepared for the day a hoax targets their brands.
The News Integrity Initiative, freshly funded with $14 million to combat fake news, is preparing to create an early warning network by linking together newsrooms with NGOs and corporate social media “war rooms” so misinformation campaigns can be identified earlier and quickly revealed to affected audiences.
“Tech brings incredible opportunity to connect each other to do amazing things; but there are bad actors,” said Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY J-School and executive committee member of the News Integrity Initiative, whose funders include Facebook, Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund and the Ford Foundation.
Companies that find themselves in the crosshairs of sudden, high-volume social media attacks should take a deep breath before jumping into the fray, says Leah Gerstner, vice president of public affairs for American Express.
“The first line of defense is not to overreact,” Gerstner said during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s corporate citizenship conference in Washington. “You sort of have to take a step back and realize what is going on here.”
In June, American Express was the subject of an organized social media misinformation onslaught over a theatrical production in New York City’s Central Park portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump. The Trump clone, clad in a business suit with blonde hair, was stabbed to death in the third act.
American Express tweeted that the credit card giant was wrongly targeted, as it did not fund the Shakespeare in the Park series. The brand went on to say it does not condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play.
Amex is hardly alone. The coffee giant Keurig found itself swept into the firestorm surrounding conservative talk radio show host Sean Hannity this month. Papa John’s is waging war with those responsible for associating its brand with the alt-right.
Advice for corporate responsibility and communications professionals from Gerstner:
- Be suspicious of a high volume of tweets or emails arriving in close proximity. It’s a classic symptom of a paid campaign that was engineered, not organic.
- “Likes” can be purchased and do not necessarily reflect the popularity of a post.
- Responses should be as neutral as possible.
- Set the record straight with the facts.
- Don’t necessarily take a stand because of a misinformation campaign.
Building trust with key audiences ahead of a crisis is key to weathering the storm when fake news hits the fan, said Gerstner, acknowledging that popular consumer initiatives like Small Business Saturday have bolstered the American Express brand.
“Once misinformation hits a brand, its too late. You have to be out there ahead of time,” she said. “You want the public to disbelieve what is being said about you.”
Borrow techniques used by mainstream media to keep company information flowing, including posting video, short text memes and journalistic articles, said Gerstner, applauding Allstate for its content-rich “Purple Purse” program to combat domestic violence.