Nick Puleo
Nick Puleo

It’s no exaggeration to claim that brands are increasingly coming under fake news attacks. In fact, an entire industry has emerged in recent years solely focused on producing bogus information. And make no mistake: Falsehoods are bad for business, sometimes causing damage that lasts for years.

Such damage can be significant. Let’s say the first page of a web search about your company shows just one negative story. According to Internet research firm MOZ, a company could risk losing as much as 22 percent of its revenues. More than one such story sends that number soaring even higher.

Last year, for example, home goods retailer Wayfair confronted charges that it conspired in a child trafficking network, prompting national media coverage and a full-blown company crisis. Russian-sponsored TV segments even targeted an entire sector, falsely alleging that 5G technology could be hazardous to your health, thus sparking public concern and even opposition to advances in new technology.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

The risks that you’ll face such a frontal assault are real. As I’ve witnessed myself, they typically take the shape of “information” designed to mislead consumers, investors and other stakeholders into believing falsehoods about your product, service or overall organization.

This so-called information can be categorized as misinformation, disinformation or malinformation. Each is defined drastically differently from the others, and those differences matter.

How can you counter campaigns that directly target you, and do so either pre-emptively, while it’s happening or after the fact? For starters, it’s vitally important to know how to identify immediately which of these three culprits you’re confronting, and whether they’re merely mischievous or outright malicious. Only then can you tailor an approach likely to bring about the right solution for meeting the moment.

In my experiences with clients threatened by errant information, I’ve found that the following strategies work:

Misinformation: This is factually incorrect information that often results from accidental oversight rather than hostile intent. Rumors might circulate about a facility closure or poor product performance. Companies suffer the worst consequences from misinformation if it’s allowed to spread unnoticed. But some organizations act too late to stop it. A technology company hired me after allowing (false) rumors of sales force layoffs to persist, but by then more than half of those employees had already responded by resigning. A brand with a less-than-robust presence and weak corporate narrative is particularly vulnerable to such inaccuracies. A void in its storytelling can readily be filled with erroneous details.

The good news is that misinformation from outside actors attempting to hijack your reputation is the easiest of the three kinds of fraudulent information to defend against and neutralize. The best strategy is to communicate often, clearly and accurately to your key audiences, highlighting what your brand stands for and how your company operates. Deliver your messages through emails to employees, corporate blogs and social media channels.

We recently partnered with a university falsely accused of promoting anti-gay policies. The challenge was to defend against criticism without losing the confidence of students, faculty and donors. To achieve this objective, we developed a campaign that showcased the university’s long history of proactive community engagement along with pro-gay public statements and content.

Disinformation: This version of an alternate reality—defined more or less as lies or “factoids” intended to discredit or tarnish the reputation of a competitor or adversary—is considerably harder to crack. A World Economic Forum study found that tweets containing disinformation consistently reached more people—and more quickly—than those containing the truth. Recent research from Kroll, a corporate investigation specialist and risk consultancy, showed that 84 percent of businesses felt threatened by market manipulation caused by disinformation. For example, Twitter and Avon products suffered from disinformation campaigns that manipulated market pricing.

Companies should always take these mistruths seriously. Deploy clear, concise statements on your website, social media channels and other assets to counter quickly. Consider issuing a press release to bluntly call out false information. Companies that hesitate or equivocate rather than act forcefully and to the point run the risk of appearing to falter, the worst possible signal to send.

Malinformation: This nasty bug carries a germ of truth that’s distorted expressly to hurt your brand. Malinformation is the hardest of the three to retaliate against because it reflects a certain truth about your company.

Maybe you recall how Starbucks was once blindsided by a deceptive marketing ploy that promised coffee at a discount to all undocumented immigrants. This con job evidently intended to lure such immigrants to Starbucks so they could be reported to immigration authorities and perhaps deported. Luckily, Starbucks is widely known to be politically progressive, so addressing this dubious distortion turned out to be manageable.

Then again, most cases of malinformation are less clear-cut. Some companies flail around with responses that are roughly equivalent to “Well, that’s technically true, but let’s drill down a little here.” That’s what happened when Dominion Voting Systems was accused of rigging the 2020 presidential election. A senior executive was forced to explain why he’d authored social media posts about Donald Trump. Generally, getting painted into a corner to explain your actions means you’ve probably already lost your opportunity to satisfactorily correct the record and recover.

Whichever species of fake news you encounter, your best bet is to be preventive rather than reactive. Again, make sure your audiences understand—and appreciate—the values that your brand represents and how its operations adhere to the highest legal and ethical standards. Fortify your brand against dishonesty with a story that’s recognizably honest. Leverage data that tracks conversations about your brand. Above all, prepare a crisis communication plan that addresses all variables and contingencies and keep it in place 24/7, the better to confront fake news head-on in the moment.

Bottom line: If you ever expect to drown out the stories coming from others, you have to raise the volume on your own.


Nick Puleo is the President and Founder of Comsint.