Fake news just got real.
Last weekend, a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch drove to Washington, D.C., with the belief that an area pizzeria was the center of a "Hillary Clinton-sponsored child sex ring." If you think it sounds crazy and fantastical that the former Secretary of State would be involved in such a thing, then you are like most people who have figured out the difference between real and fake news. Unfortunately, Welch read the fake story online, thought the tale was true and then decided to "go superhero" and try to bust-up the ring himself. Armed with an assault rifle, he entered the pizza joint and even fired his weapon. Scary stuff.
Fake news is nothing new. Most of us can quickly tell the difference between bona fide news coverage and information that is blatantly false. We also understand the concept of tabloid journalism and how some publications like the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer offer sensational stories with the hopes of drawing readers who will patronize their advertisers.
In recent years, fake news has gained a toehold on the internet, and most of us either ignore it or view it as annoying or maybe even amusing. Fake news was amplified during the presidential campaign, and some even believe that such stories impacted how people voted and even turned the presidential election.
Quite honestly, I didn't pay much attention to the clamor about fake news until I read about the gunman in the pizza place. Suddenly, something seemingly fake became potentially fatal. Fake news, you now have my attention.
This situation has many facets. I could drone-on about how we need to be more vigilant in our consumption of news along with providing a diatribe on how traditional journalistic practices have fallen by the wayside in the new information age. However, my biggest fear is that fake news will become more prevalent and more significant. Fake news is poised to make the leap from an obscure aspect of political skullduggery to a mainstream marketing practice.
It's not hard to imagine. Worried about your competitor down the street? Just publish some fake news about building code issues, health code violations or worse. Tremendous reputational damage - and lost revenue - could be in the offing. The owner of the pizza place, which had nothing to do with any malfeasance by the way, was forced to close its doors for several days. Not a great situation.
How to handle fake news involving your business
If nothing else, this is yet another warning shot and reminder that every business needs to be continually monitoring its online reputation. This can be done by simply checking your search results frequently, or it can be handled in a more elaborate way with monitoring software. Regardless of what you choose, it's critical that every business have a plan in place to monitor its online results.
If fake information is published about your company, the first step is to make a quick assessment. What does it say? Where was it published? Is it defamatory or damaging? How widespread is it? Can it be taken down at the source? Does it make sense to reach out to law enforcement? Answer these questions quickly, and if you can't, get help.
Develop your plan
The best choice is to try to get negative information taken down, however, it's not that simple. Big name websites like Reddit and Facebook are cracking down on fake news as are bona fide news outlets like CNN and the New York Times. If the fake news is so-called sponsored content or native advertising, then you may be able to get it taken down fairly quickly. You also need to look at the severity of the story. If it includes crazy illegal allegations like those that impacted the pizza parlor, then you may want to reach out to law enforcement. You may also want to contact a lawyer, but be aware that reputational damage may be inflicted long before a legal solution can be implemented.
Consider whether to respond or publish a counter story. If the fake news feels like a blip, you may want to ride it out. If it is significant and is impacting your business, then you need to look at your communications options. Everything should be on the table from an explanatory sign in the window to to an e-blast to customers or even a full-blown media campaign. You need to consider all your options even though, in the end, you may choose to let it ride
Exactly how to handle fake news is bit of uncharted territory, but monitoring, a quick assessment and a sensible action plan could save your business from tremendous reputational damage. More information on how to handle negative online content is available in my book How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.