5 Ways Brands Can Protect Themselves Against the Next Social Media Hoax

These campaigns go viral and can ruin an organization’s equity

Shield with the Instagram logo on it
Social media changes so quickly, and it's important to stay on top of it or risk becoming susceptible to fake news scams.
Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: iStock, Instagram

Martha Stewart shared it. Usher shared it. Top government officials and media execs shared it.

As the latest Instagram copyright hoax made its rounds, pixelated and degrading in quality with each repost, others watched in horror as the internet underscored yet again the most glaring vulnerability of our digital age: Fact-checking is an afterthought, if ever a thought at all.

Today, misinformation campaigns go viral at astonishing rates. This is largely due to an always-on news cycle and increasing pressure to deliver engagement metrics, publishers and even consumers are caught in an endless cycle of trending topics and participatory memes. And this behavior isn’t going away soon. With the 2020 election lurking around the corner, troll farms are staffing up to deliver a wave of entertaining articles, images and deep-fakes to intentionally disrupt our daily lives and mislead a massive segment of the population into spreading propaganda far and wide. Even digital natives aren’t safe from clicking a half-true headline.

So, what does this mean for advertisers in 2019 and 2020?

Simply put, it means your brand is more likely than ever before to have a communications crisis while you’re asleep. Without an adequate and timely response, the damage from fake news can make a real and lasting impact on your brand’s equity. Especially with an uptick in belief-driven consumers who buy and boycott based on a company’s moral and ethical standing, silence can be deadly.

Without an adequate and timely response, the damage from fake news can make a real and lasting impact on your brand’s equity.

But unlike a traditional response to actual bad news, there’s a case to be made for levity. A shift in tone and an acknowledgment of absurdity can provide a much-needed escape from the fray and give you a chance to pivot attention back to your brand’s best assets.

Here are five ways brands can fight back against viral misinformation campaigns.

Build a rapid response team

Whether it’s an in-house team or a part-time team of on-call experts, you’ll need a reasonably experienced copywriter, designer and internet-savvy strategist to defend your brand from needless attacks. Take care to ensure this team includes people with varying personal experiences and perspectives to eliminate the risk of blind spots in your interpretation of any issues that may arise.

The pattern of fake news can be predicted. Whether it starts with a Facebook post or single tweet, arm your team with the tools they need to detect any rumblings online early before mainstream media picks up the story and boosts it to new audiences.

Set creative guardrails

Put together a set of guidelines in advance for how and where you respond, your desired tone and a list of topics you might want to avoid altogether. Develop a lexicon of words and phrases your brand does and doesn’t use. Include a few mock disasters and responses that senior leadership can evaluate and sign off on. Be as thorough as possible. The intention here isn’t to set strict rules, but to achieve internal alignment on what works to avoid rounds of revisions in a later situation where urgency must take precedence over perfection.

Let your team do its thing

Once the parameters are set, remove the red tape and let your team play. The more breathing room they have, the more they’ll be able to think on their toes, create content fast and ship real-time reactions without breaking anything. To support unencumbered collaboration, make sure there’s a clear way to get in touch when news breaks, something as simple as a dedicated Slack channel or messaging group works well. Include a couple of senior experts from your team that may need to give a quote as needed, but be careful not to invite too many cooks to the kitchen.

Don’t only play defense

If your brand is only ever reacting to rumors, you’ve already lost. Be honest with yourself and your response team, fostering open discussions about known areas of risk and trending topics in adjacent categories that you might get sucked into. Consider what your competitors have faced recently and how your brand might be able to get ahead of similar issues. The sooner you can get to a place of proactive planning, the better. For any large brand, at least half of this team’s time should go to research, conversation monitoring and inspiration gathering so no scenario comes as a total surprise. Remember that there are patterns.

Spread your own rumors

Nothing malicious or deceitful, of course, but brands should absolutely feel empowered to talk themselves up. Content plays a massive role in brand affinity and organic referrals. Put your team to work developing educational and entertaining content that’s just as shareable as the memes we see from darker creative counterparts. Tell your story before it’s told for you.

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