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Reputation Management, Fake News and How to Deal With the Constantly Changing Rules

[By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications]

Remember the good old days – like, oh a few months ago – when one of the major threats to reputation was getting caught up in critical news coverage or disparaging social media chatter?

That was then. This is now: Try fighting to save that reputation when you’re under attack from a fake news site or a false tweet goes hyper-viral.

Ask Pepsi, which came under fire when it was “reported” the CEO said Donald Trump supporters should “take their business elsewhere.” Calls for a boycott of Pepsi quickly followed across social media. Except, as Snopes and numerous others reported, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi never said that. She did offer that she’d talked to employees upset that Hillary Clinton lost, but Nooyi congratulated Trump on his win calling it “the process of democracy.” And you don’t have to hope the reporter got it right: Nooyi is on video.

New Balance faced the wrath of the opposite end of our divided political state. The U.S.-based shoe company’s VP of public affairs told the Wall Street Journal that “with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction” in answer to a question about the Trans-Pacific  Partnership Trade Agreement, which Trump opposes – as do Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Trump opponents interpreted this as New Balance supporting all of Trump’s positions, and they took to social media to set New Balance shoes on fire and – see if this sounds familiar – call for a boycott. It didn’t help when The Daily Stormer website – popular with anti-Semitic white supremacists – offered that New Balance’s “brave act has just made them the official brand of the Trump revolution.”

There may be a basic lesson for corporate leaders here about the tenor of our times: If people think you oppose Trump, you’ll be boycotted. If people think you support Trump, you’ll be boycotted.

Beyond that, though, are the sobering challenges for people who care about their reputation and brand having to take on this runaway trend of fake news amid the ever-changing “rules” of effective social media use.

Stories about fake news are suddenly everywhere. In a move that would be funny if it weren’t also sad, PBS featured this headline recently: 5 important stories that aren’t fake news.  (Whereupon, I’m sure, some critic somewhere insisted the PBS stories were fake.)

To be sure, fake news isn’t new. This trend is just the latest that indicates we’re reliving the “yellow journalism” era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when printing presses and paper suddenly were cheap, and newspapers were springing up everywhere, leading to intense competition for attention that prompted sensational and even made-up stories. (Again, sound familiar?)

What if you’re caught up in a fake news story, with your reputation on the line? A piece by Ilyse Liffreing of Campaign US, picked up by PR World, offered some tips, including reacting quickly and enlisting every employee to help defend your brand.

We’ll add some of Hennes Communications’ principles for effective use of social media. But the first rule we’ll suggest is don’t fall in love with the rules, because they’re changing constantly.

Consider that one of the most infamous episodes of a false report gaining huge traction during the presidential campaign involved a single tweet from a man who posted pictures of buses and said they were evidence of paid protesters being bused to demonstrations against Trump. They weren’t. The buses were for attendees of a nearby software conference.


Nevertheless that post was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook, as the New York Times’ Sapna Maheshwari  outlines in the excellent “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.”

For people who study reputation management on social media, the twist was this: The original Tweeter had 40 followers. And one of the “rules” has been to assess the threat and avoid adding fuel to the fire by reacting to a critic with few followers. The bus tweet is an extreme example, as it came amid the most hyper-charged national election in memory. It’s also, though, a reminder that the potential damage from a social media post cannot be judged solely by the initial audience.

Here are some other guidelines to consider:

  1. Get on social media before the crisis hits. Know where your customers and key stakeholders are on social media and engage them. Don’t wait until you’re under attack to “discover” Facebook and Twitter.
  2. Evaluate the threat. Where and how did it start? Who’s the source? How influential is the source? (But remember, as with the bus tweet, influence can be earned online in seconds.) Is it catching fire?
  3. Monitor social media and be prepared to respond. Don’t let mistakes or factual misstatements about you or your organization persist online.
  4. When you know it’s time to respond, do so as quickly as possible. An honest, factual, sincere response is more important than a perfectly polished response. You must get in the game.
  5. Most of all, be transparent, tell the truth and back up your words with actions.

“Technology changes, but human nature doesn’t,” David Mikkelson, editor of famed fact-checking site, told the Washington Post. “People want to believe the same things for the same reasons, and spread the same kind of stories. It’s just, instead of talking over their back fence, they’re on Facebook.”

Thom Fladung worked at newspapers for 33 years and hated it whenever a newspaper tried an April Fools prank. For more on how to effectively communicate amid a crisis or reputation-challenging event, contact Hennes Communications and ask about our social media training sessions.

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