Most PR pros know that a journalist with an agenda can spell problems for a client.
In these cases, we work diligently to educate reporters by providing background materials, third party studies and surveys, and pointing them toward experts in the field. We can prepare our clients for a tough interview with bridging and blocking techniques and talking points that tell their side of the story.
But what if there is no journalist to educate? What if the court of public opinion are the nameless, faceless masses on the Internet and your client had no idea there was even a trial until well after they were found guilty? What if the evidence is entirely fake, conspiracy-theory junk? How do you fight back?
Recently, a beloved pizza shop in Washington, DC has found itself in the middle of a maelstrom of political conspiracy theories, vicious unfounded accusations, and real-life terrorism stemming from the presidential election. The nameless, faceless hordes on the Internet have taken to harassing and threatening the pizza shop’s employees and their families, flinging disgusting and false accusations at the owner and his employees, now even accusing and drawing surrounding businesses into this web of conspiracy. The most recent act of terrorism happened on Sunday, when someone showed up at the restaurant brandishing a gun and fired a shot into the floor. He was “there to investigate the rumors.”
The answer to the question of "how do you fight back?" is not a simple one. We seem to be at a place in the evolution of the Internet where fake news grows like weeds, where bullying and conspiracy are becoming more mainstream and people will believe anything they read. Some have begun to call this time the “Post-Truth” era.
In this Post-Truth Era, the counsel I give all my crisis clients of "prepare for the worst and hope for the best" remains true. All businesses, no matter their size, need to do some basic preparations about how to deal with a crisis. If something like this hasn't happened yet, include scenarios dealing with fake/misleading news and Internet vigilantism in crisis planning and training. Having a social media presence for your business can help establish a company’s voice and be a tool to use in the fight against misinformation.
If you find yourself the target of a false online smear campaign, it is crucial to act quickly. If threats have been made, after calling the police, quickly engage your allies. Call local journalists to get the story out, saying that you are being targeted and you need to tell your side of things. Determine if there are any third parties that can speak on your behalf and to provide you further credibility and speak out about the fake news. Be aware that these allies may become targets themselves.
While it is instinctual to retreat and lay low if something like this happens, doing nothing can be just as, if not more, damaging as it allows the rumors to flourish unchecked. I recommend amplifying the coverage that you can control. Increasing online ad buys that redirect to positive stories and drown out the fake ones is one method, proactively writing and submitting bylines, blog posts, op-eds or letters to the editor are others.
Along these same lines, controlling what you can in the legal realm is helpful as well. Libel and defamation lawsuits might deter some from spreading rumors and show that you mean business, though the U.S.' free speech protections along with the anonymity of the internet make identifying those to sue and winning a suit difficult if not unlikely. If any images you own are being circulated or are being used as memes, you may have better luck as the copyright holder with takedown notices. It is tedious work, but the long term protection of the brand is the focus of these efforts.
Finally, having tough conversations with your employees about how they conduct themselves online in relation to the business, about how to identify threats and what to do if your business is targeted, is important. They, along with your customers and supporters, are your army in the fight against fake news.
We are in a brave new world of crisis management. Traditional crisis management techniques might not be able to entirely sway the internet's collective viewpoint, but if you are representing a client that has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion, especially one based on falsehoods, you must fight back.