So your brand is the victim of fake news. Now what?

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Pepsi and New Balance are dealing with boycotts. Experts share tips on how to smother the viral flames

Last week, the proliferation of fake news on social media ignited a debate over its influence on the election. And two global brands, Pepsi and New Balance, got caught in the online vitriol when top company executives were misquoted in fabricated articles that went viral, and consumers called for boycotts of their products. 

Pro-Trump websites incorrectly quoted Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi as saying that Donald Trump supporters should "take their business elsewhere," while anti-Trump websites quoted New Balance’s vice president of public affairs saying that New Balance was the "official brand of the Trump revolution."

Brands like Macy’s, Grubhub and Oreos are also appearing on boycott lists shared across social channels, for seemingly taking sides during the election.

Fake news spreads fast on social media, but it can take a long time for a brand’s reputation to recover. It could take "anywhere from six weeks to six months," said Tony Telloni, a veteran PR executive who has held senior positions at SparkPR and Golin. 

To keep viral storms from escalating, social media and PR experts suggest brands follow these four strategies to combat the online hate.

Craft a quick, but considered response 

Chiara Martini, director of social strategy at DDB New York, said brands have to respond quickly to make the facts known. It’s important to get the brand’s true position on an issue understood immediately, and not deliberate too long on developing a flawless statement.  "For brands on social media, it’s better to be an honest brand than a perfect brand," said Martini.  "People appreciate honesty."

The more high profile the brand, the quicker the response should be. Smaller brands can more time to consider the lifecycle of the crisis, said Telloni. "Oftentimes crises are fueled by a response to something that is going away," he said. "Think about whether this is a three-hour story or is it something that in three hours will be blown out of control?"

Telloni has advised several smaller brands in the past to wait it out, but he won’t disclose the circumstances. "The first rule of crisis management is like Fight Club: you don’t talk about it," he said.

Flood the media with a positive narrative 

Embrace the crisis and make the best of it.  It’s easy to imagine a brand’s stock price dropping lower than it did during the recession and drown in negativity. Instead, think of the problem as an opportunity to tell the story of the brand. 

James Cooper, head of creative at New York studio betaworks, the creators of Bitly, Chartbeat and Tweetdeck, says a brand has to fight fire with fire. "You have to hack the media in the same way that the negative people are doing," he said. "You can flood the media with positive stories that will affect your SEO and the algorithms."

New Balance has done a good job regaining control of the narrative, said Telloni, particularly in the tone of its social media messages. "It’s been strongly worded about who the company is and what they stand for and what they don’t stand for," he said. "They’ve been very consistent with the messaging they’ve put across all their channels, and I think at the end of the day, when the dust settles, they can be proud about the brand they work for."

If the brand doesn’t counter the negative news with its own story, the brand only opens itself up to even more fake news, added Telloni. "In the absence of a company articulating its own message, everyone else has the opportunity to define the message for you," he said. And if someone else gets there before you, then, "ultimately it takes that much longer to take control of the narrative back."

Make every employee a brand messenger

Once the company has decided what the response will be, every employee needs to be able to spread that same message, from the person driving the Pepsi truck to the CEO, said Telloni. The only way to effectively manage a PR crisis is to make sure the entire company knows the true story and can communicate it. Never overlook an employee that might take to social media with an opinion of their own, he added. "Especially if you are a consumer-facing brand, you want to make sure everyone who works for the company knows what you are doing and what the response is going to be," he said. 

Don’t forget paid media  

Earned media can only take a brand so far when it is dealing with a viral fire.  Instead, pay for messaging across all channels, whether that is on social media, broadcast or print. Paid media, of course, allows the brand the utmost control over its narrative. An agency wants to get the brand message out there as soon as possible, and sometimes paying for placement is the best way, said Telloni. "That's especially important online and in social, where certain posts can get a boost from paid media, ensuring more people see the post and the message, over relying on just organic to get it out," he said.

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