October 30th, 2020
[The following commentary originally appeared as a post on Forbes.com that Edward Segal wrote as a Leadership Strategy contributor. His other posts on Forbes.com can be read at https://www.forbes.com/search/?q=Edward%20Segal&sh=696c69c8279f]
Misinformation continues to grow at an alarming rate, along with its potential to infect corporations and organizations. No matter how it spreads — via fake news sites, traditional news organizations, or social media — companies that ignore and hope this crisis goes away may be putting their image, credibility, and reputation at risk.
Not The Real Thing
Coca-Cola has had first-hand experience with misinformation. In 2018 there was a false report that its Dasani brand of water was contaminated with parasites and that the Food and Drug Administration had shut down the company’s manufacturing facility and issued a major recall of the product.
In a statement, the Coca-Cola Company said that “The source of this false and inflammatory information about our brand is a hoax news website. There is no recall of Dasani being conducted in the U.S., so please confidently continue to enjoy Dasani bottled water.”
Equal Opportunity Threat
Marshall Van Alstyne, a professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, specializes in curbing the spread of misinformation.
“The bigger brands are more common targets because their name recognition make them better clickbait,” he said.
But don’t assume or hope your company has dodged the misinformation bullet just because it is not an obvious target. A target is a target.
“Private companies are increasingly vulnerable to misinformation campaigns and yet few, if any, have taken the necessary steps to protect their brands, their employees, and their bottom lines,” said Lisa Kaplan, founder and CEO of Alethea Group and former digital director for US Senator Angus King’s (I-Maine) 2018 re-election campaign. “Misinformation is a threat to all organizations' ability to communicate with their customers, stakeholders, and voters,” she said.
Prepare, Respond, Evaluate
And speaking of communication, why should you be content to stay in the dark about the falsehoods that may be circulating about your company? Left unchallenged or uncorrected, people might assume the falsehoods are really the truth.
“The reactive, piecemeal approaches we have seen lately will no longer cut it. To adequately prepare, companies need a comprehensive plan, including the capability to detect and mitigate disinformation before it takes hold. The C-Suite can’t keep crossing their fingers and hoping that they won’t be next,” Kaplan advised.
The actions companies take to address misinformation “should be the same as any communicator's crisis strategy planning,” said T. Garland Stansell, national chair of the Public Relations Society of America.
Organizations should “develop preplanned strategies, messaging, responses and safeguards. When/if an attack or issue occurs, having a plan in place will help ensure a thorough, strategic response. As with any communications plan, evaluation of the effectiveness should take place immediately after and adjustment made if needed to ensure improvement[s] for the future,” Stansell said.
What steps you take to respond to misinformation may depend on where and how it surfaces, according to Rich Matta, CEO of Reputation Defender, an online reputation management firm. His list includes misleading or fake reviews, unfair or unsubstantiated news articles, rumors and conspiracy theories, and old or incomplete material that lack context. “Companies must be aware that any response can give the misinformation more ‘airtime’ or more legitimacy than it deserves.
“Many times the best response is to not respond at all, but rather to amplify the rate at which the company talks, publishes, and posts about everything else that it stands for. This creates a mass of truthful, accurate information that, when done correctly, pushes the misinformation off of the top page of Google and down to where very few people will ever see it,” Matta said.
Companies that do not want to engage in hand-to-hand combat with misinformation may be content to wait it out and for internet platforms to do at least some of the fighting for them.
Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard University’s Harvard Kennedy School, says there are number of steps that platforms can take now. They include establishing and enforcing standards to make it clear what actions they will take about misinformation and hiring staff to moderate the content that is posted on their platforms. He points to Twitter’s decision last year to ban political advertising as “the best example of a company putting democracy over profits.”
In explaining their decision to prohibit the advertising, CEO Jack Dorsey said that, “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.
“These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility.”
Other have belatedly followed Twitter’s lead. Google and YouTube recently announced they’ve banned misinformation from their sites concerning Covid-19 and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus crisis.
Some crisis situations are more difficult and challenging to address than others. Unfortunately, the spread of the misinformation infection from the business world to the political world will not make things any easier for anybody.