Fake News: Brands and Social Media Credibility

With the advent of social media came hope that consumers would be treated to a world where the truth prevailed – a brave new world powered by the people against global media moguls peddling propaganda. Now, it appears the situation has been turned on its head, with the likes of Pepsi, New Balance, Macy’s, Grubhub, and Oreo falling victim to fake news that spread rapidly via social media.

Social media – A breeding ground for viral (but fake) content

Brands have a real problem with platforms such as Facebook and the like. Social media is now so ingrained within our lives that consumers seem to believe every last word, of every shared post. And the trouble is, we truly trust it.

Like lambs to the slaughter, brands are potentially killed off by a single post from those who profiteer on click bait. At least we knew the clear positions of media outlets – vested interests, self-declared political persuasions and (with a little research) their connections to the world of big business. Now this no-holds-barred free-speech is looking less like a utopia, and more like an Orwellian nightmare for brands doing battle with news fakery.

Compared to mainstream news, this fakery is altogether more difficult to decipher – both the origins and the intent. There are those who create click-bait for a rush of penny-click profit (something Google has vowed to get to grips with when it comes to AdSense) – but these are the easy guys to tackle. There are then those doing it just for kicks – the pre-teen in his bedroom, bored between tea and bedtime.

And the potential result? Outcomes that range from the bizarre to the financially devastating

Fake news can (allegedly) be held at least partly to blame for electing a megalomaniac business man – now the most powerful in the world (Buzzfeed’s take on this). It can also be credited with Kylie Jenner having been awarded the Medal of Freedom for – “realizing stuff”. Amazing. Ok, you could argue that target market of the Kardashian clan is arguably less intellectually gifted than the average man, but even market traders (who we’d like to think are pretty smart) aren’t immune : £1.05m losses suffered by shareholders of two companies following fake tweets that both were under US government investigation.

Brands – You’ve got a challenge on your hands. And you (may be) on your own with this one.

There’s been much heat on the likes of Facebook to get on top of this issue. Mark Zuckerberg spearheads the importance of free speech, yet his position on the antithesis of free speech – propaganda and brand BS – has until recently been a flat out denial of the issue. Bottom line? It’s debatable whether this is the responsibility of social media platforms, and even if it were, brands can’t rely on them for protection from fake news.

PR guru Tony Telloni says that it takes anywhere from six weeks to six months for brands to recover from the impact of a fake news story. The need for a reactive and finely honed strategy is then a non-negotiable for brands of any and every industry. But when it comes to the crunch, brands have two big problems – the speed at which these stories spread and being able to counter the impact by being able to reach people on-mass (and even then – will the consumer listen?).

So, how can brands manage the risk of fake news?

As a first step, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth communications from brand to consumer need to be innovative and engaging enough to contend with the allure of fake news. But beyond this line of messaging is the need for a reply to such stories with a voice that goes beyond the official announcement with a voice that is authentic and credible. And there may be no more an authentic or credible voice than real, fellow social media users. But when faced with a viral fake story, some brands are missing a trick by ruling out thousands of potential mouthpieces that could aptly counteract mistruths and rumours – their employees.

Whilst employee advocacy has been harnessed and accepted as important for tasks such as productivity, recruiting, brand awareness, social selling, event attendance and more, brands have been slow to catch onto employee advocacy as a tool for fighting fake news.

One example that others may learn a lot from is healthcare company Humana, where staff aren’t only granted access to social media, but are promoted to a level where they themselves can become original content creators. This is the kind of innovation that could be capable of truly tackling social media news fakery.

By comparison, 54% of employees in the wider working world are banned entirely from social media. It’s all pretty archaic, to say the least, and in fact 45% of companies ban it exactly because they fear it’ll damage business reputation (Lewis Communications and HCL Technologies), when in fact, quite the opposite could be true.

Whilst we can hope that Facebook etc get to grips with the issue of fake stories, brands need to presume that all responsibility currently lies at their door.

When it comes to voices to whom consumers may listen, employee advocacy is a critical tool to be harnessed – and yet all too many companies fall at the first hurdle by not even allowing their staff online – all whilst the world may well be falling down around their ears.

Ultimately companies of every industry need to think hard on their strategies if they’re to limit the impact of any future fake story – and this may well be such an imposing challenge that global businesses may need to completely rip up corporation-wide communication policies.

‘Proposition Q’ and CSR: We’re Better Than This

This week a story I saw in The Guardian, TechCrunch and others really fired up my jets. Basically a few highly influential tech entrepreneurs and investors are funding a proposal that gives SFPD the power to remove homeless tents from the sidewalks of SanFrancisco. Officially called ‘Proposition Q’, to date it has principally been funded by Michael Moritz (Sequoia Capital), Ron Conway (a tech Angel Investor), William Oberndorf (SPO Partners) and Zachary Bogue (Mr Marisa Mayer) who between them have donated more than $150,000 to the Proposition Q campaign (the majority of the current $270,000 campaign fund).

Proposition Q is being sold as an attempt to help the homeless, but in reality they just want to hide the problem: the visible evidence of homelessness. It doesn’t address the issue of homelessness, nor does it provide any alternative accommodation for those who have the only shelter available to them, forcibly taken. There has to be a better way of dealing with the problem than this.

Entrepreneurial Responsibility 

It’s great that these individuals want to do something about an issue that is on their doorstep. Personally, I believe that it’s really important for Entrepreneurs (well all individuals, really) to support causes that are close to their hearts. For example, I am actively involved in the UAE with a charity that rescues abandoned cats and ensures they are cared for and re-homed.

At the other end of the spectrum, high profile tech entrepreneurs and UHNW individuals – Zuckerberg; Gates; Buffett – are committing large amounts to solving some huge social, environmental, education and medical issues. Consider the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which offers grants to causes who apply and has a website full of great statements, such as

We believe that by giving people the tools to lead healthy, productive lives, we can help them lift themselves out of poverty.”

In contrast to spending money to hide a problem, The Gates Foundation works to address the root causes and find sustainable solutions to the problems facing some of the most disadvantaged groups and locations.

The guys funding Proposition Q should be ashamed of themselves. They are not funding a coherent plan to help the homeless, they’re just removing the only shelter they have in a massively insensitive way. Entrepreneurs, especially those who are successful on the scale of Moritz (net worth $3.1bn), have a responsibility to deliver on their platitudes that they want to “make the world a better place”. Homelessness has long been an issue in San Francisco, so why can’t these guys work together with the other Silicon Valley heroes and use their technology and influence to incentivise, fund, sponsor or create shelters and programs that provide a step to permanent accommodation for homeless individuals? I’m thinking along the lines of an X Prize  – get some great entrepreneurial minds to address the root causes of the problem, rather than attempting to hide the evidence of a broken system out of view. In this connected world, if we have the means, we should all work together for the greater good.

CSR = Win Win

In addition to the greater social benefit that CSR provides to the world at large, it also has an extremely positive impact on brand image, making you more appealing to investors and boosting the morale of both employees and stakeholders. The three main wins for enterprises generated by developing socially responsible practices are:

 

1. Morale & Recruitment

Employees want to feel like they are part of something more than a profit-turning machine, and a socially responsible company attracts higher standard of candidates when it comes to recruitment, as well as improving the morale of both existing employees and managements – the feeling of making the world a better place can work wonders for motivation.

2. Cost Saving

Committing to improving your companies’ stance on environment causes, such as cutting down on paper usage, waste or increasing recycling can help businesses – by reducing overheads.

3. Brand Value

Social entrepreneurship is important in the modern climate – especially when the general public – also known as your customers and clients – are becoming more and more socially aware and starting to base their decisions on charitable and socially responsible actions made by companies. Socially responsible companies are a more favourable option for cause-conscious consumers.

I’m reminded of a Steve Jobs Quote:

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them the tools they’ll do wonderful things with them”

In an increasingly socially aware world it’s time for all of us to take responsibility for our actions and make smarter choices.