To ignore or engage: That is the question when it comes to fake news

I just finished reading a fascinating analysis of the impact last year’s fake news about Pepsi’s CEO telling people not to vote for Donald Trump had on the company’s reputation, sales and stock price .

The answer is:  Not good.

In fact, even though the company responded fairly swiftly to deny the accusations, they waited just long enough for the original news to be amplified. So, instead of a small group of news junkies reading the outright lie, Pepsi’s fake news dominated the media for several cycles and did a real number on the company.

You can read the analysis, but the corporate reputation took a severe hit from which it still hasn’t recovered. Ditto with the stock price and sales. All because of fake news.

In Pepsi’s case, an instantaneous correction might have mitigated some of the damage or, at least, minimized the amplification. It’s the latter that can kill an individual’s or corporation’s image. Nowadays, once enough people have read (or spread) fake news, you’re dead.

That’s why the 22 CCOs and CMOs I just interviewed for an upcoming research report that will be published on The Institute of PR told me it’s one of the top three business issues keeping them up at night.

But, it’s not the fake news in, and of, itself that’s at issue. It’s the decision that needs to be made whether to immediately respond and correct (which will ignite additional news cycles) or to ignore the nonsensical report and hope it goes away. It’s a real roll of the dice.

We’ve counseled clients to ignore fake news if the source has a limited following and the likelihood of amplification is slim. I remember one blogger who tore the bejesus out of a client in a story chock full of falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations. As you might expect, the client was enraged and wanted to go right after the blogger. We counseled them to wait and see if the story spread. It didn’t. But, if it had, we would have reached out across every channel to clarify and correct.

And therein lies the dilemma of fake news: Do you wait to see what the damage will be and, perhaps, suffer Pepsi’s fate or do you ignore the lies and hope they simply fade away? There’s no textbook or best practice to follow, so each CCO and CMO has to rely on her head, heart and gut to reach a decision (and hope it’s the right one).

That’s a heavy weight, especially if you’re at the communications helm of a global powerhouse such as Pepsi. The only approach on which all 22 respondents with whom I spoke agreed was constant vigilance and swift decision making.

Fake news has clearly made a marketing communications professional’s job exponentially more difficult (and tenuous). That’s why I’m hoping more and more corporations will share their strategies at sessions such as the upcoming Arthur W. Page Spring Conference.

The more we know, the better our chances of success. And, that’s the truth.



2 thoughts on “To ignore or engage: That is the question when it comes to fake news

  1. Pingback: Flat Pepsi – Learning from Sodamaker’s Latest Formula | Rep Man

  2. I think the recent flap about United and leggings was an instance of waiting too long to come out with an explanation.