Fake news isn’t just a threat to politicians or elections — it’s a dire threat to brands worldwide, and given the nature of B2C business and the natural fickleness of most retail customers, retail brands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of fake news on loyalty and retention. Before we jump into the discussion, let’s define what we mean when we use “fake news” in the context of the retail industry. Wikipedia gives an interesting definition:
“Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention. [It is] intentionally misleading and deceptive…”
That about sums it up, but I think we can write something just a bit clearer in the context of retail:
“Fake news is a story that either goes viral on social media, gets picked up by the traditional media, or both, that both damages your brand’s reputation and is untrue. This can result in the loss of customers, potential customers, revenue, or all three.”
Or, to put it even more simply:
“Fake news about your brand is a lie about your business that’s being spread widely and is causing damage.”
These lies have consequences.
Fake News About Brands Can Have Real Costs
Starbucks is probably one of the biggest brands out there to suffer from fake news complaints — the fake story about “Dreamer Day” sparked intense backlash online, and here’s the worst part: Even when Starbucks came out, immediately, and said that it was all a bunch of hooey and not even close to true, more than a few people simply dismissed it as lying and backpedaling by Starbucks. Starbucks lost those customers forever.
But before you get comfortable because you’ve got a small-to-medium-sized business, consider the sad saga of Pizzagate, the fake news story about a “secret child-trafficking ring” being run out of a pizza place in DC that almost caused the business to shut down. They were just a little guy caught up in something much bigger than themselves, but they’re the only ones who really suffered for it.
Fake News Targets Brands Big and Small
These are not isolated incidents. Walmart’s been hit. Amazon has been targeted. Wendy’s has taken a beating. Even some poor schmucks at a funeral home got hit. Take a moment to peruse these articles — they’re horrid, but they teach a valuable lesson. These types of stories don’t pull any punches. They cross serious boundaries. They make accusations that are often racially, sexually, or politically charged (or all three), that fill readers with disgust, that are designed to elicit a visceral reaction. And they’re utterly false. Completely made up. But in today’s world, once that news is spread, fake or not, you’re just going to lose some people, and you’ll never win them back.
Prepare to Lose Some Customers
Don’t believe me? The modern anti-vaccine movement is a perfect example. The idea that vaccines cause autism is demonstrably false, and has been for decades. And yet, a single, false article in 1998 (that was retracted, by the way, and for which the writer lost his license to practice medicine) has spawned a movement that has lasted 20 years. Medical professionals suffer, and continue to suffer, from the lies of (former) Dr. Andrew Wakefield. These medical professionals have lost customers, but much worse, many misled parents have lost children.
But it doesn’t matter to these people — they cannot let go of these lies. And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to reach them, though some come around after their kids get sick. That’s not going to happen with those who have disavowed Starbucks, let me just tell you. All of these stories are fake news — lies. They’ve all been proven false. There’s sufficient evidence in every case to prove that they’re false. Most rational people understand that they’re false. But many people are irrational. And many of those irrational people are your customers (or potential customers).
Hit Back — Hard
If a fake news story hits you, you need to fight back, but you also need to be prepared for the inevitable hit to your retention numbers and your customers’ loyalty, because, even though all fake news targeting any business is woefully undeserved, nevertheless, the impetus will be on you to prove innocence. In this brave new world, where social media stories are judge, jury, and executioner, where brands especially are presumed guilty even when clearly proven innocent, getting hit with a fake news story is a bit like having your identity stolen: It’s going feel like you got sucker-punched, a bunch of people aren’t going to believe you no matter what proof you have, it’s going to take a long, long time to fix it (along with a great deal of unpaid effort on your part), it’s going to cost a lot of money to fix, and you’ll never really recover from the effects. That being said, there are clear actions you can take to both prevent fake news and to fight it when it happens.
8 Ways to Fight Fake News
- Have a plan of action — fake news happens, but just like a fire, if you’re prepared for it, you can mitigate the damage. Create a plan of action for a fake news story. Map out potential avenues of attack and how you might respond to such attacks. Put someone in charge of the response. You might even look into PR firms who specialize in fake news situations and have experience — even if you never use them, it’s good to know who to call just in case.
- Explain the truth to your customers quickly and in full — the faster you respond to fake news, the more customers you’re going to retain. When you let things slip and don’t respond, time works against you, and once you lose someone to a fake news story, you might never get them back. That’s why being prepared is so critical — you need to launch into action as soon as you possibly can.
- Create a culture of transparency and truth — it’s easier to fight false allegations when your brand is considered open and honest, when your employees know what’s going on, and when your customers know that you’re trustworthy.
- Create a culture of pride and respect (and take care of your employees) — you’ll need your employees on your side if the fight becomes big. Nothing helps to knock the wind out of fake news like a brand’s actual, low-level employees standing up and calling fake news a lie on various forms of social media and in person to detractors in your brick and mortar store. PR firms can only go so far — you need boots on the ground to stop this stuff in its tracks, especially in the world of retail.
- Be calmly and intelligently vocal with the facts — if a story is spreading, you and your response team need to address the lies wherever they’re being spread. Meet the lies in the medium by which they’re being disseminated. Deconstruct the lies, one by one. Provide evidence, provide counterpoints, discuss things calmly and rationally (even when others are not being calm and rational). If you show yourself to be calm, intelligent, clear, and respectful, you’ll be more likely to change some minds. Angry denial and name calling will only make things worse.
- Contact those spreading the story — if the story has been picked up by influencers large and small, reach out to them, explain the facts, and ask them to retract what they’ve said. You may need to offer substantial evidence, you may need to reveal things about your business you’d rather keep secret, but when you’re fighting for the truth and your brand’s reputation, do what you must.
- Take legal action if you can — if someone has deliberately (or negligently) attacked your brand and spread a story that you can show has caused damage, you may have a legal case. It certainly won’t hurt to get legal counsel sooner rather than later, and you’d probably rather pay a bit up front to learn there’s nothing you can do than to avoid talking with a lawyer and end up paying for it down the road.
- Be persistent — if a fake news story gains traction, you’ll be fighting it for a long time. Don’t give up! Keep your employees up to date on developments, keep the truth in front of them, keep reaching out to those spreading the fake story, keep spreading the truth whenever the lies pop up, and keep up any legal action you’ve taken against malicious attackers.
Never Give Up on Your Business
If a fake news story targets your business, life isn’t going to look rosy for a while, and you might feel compelled to give up. In the modern world of retail, even a small drop in business can have a huge effect. But those who create and spread fake news are looking to damage your business — period. They want you to give up. They want you to become disheartened, to feel like a failure.
Don’t play their game — rise above it. Keep fighting and keep your business open and operational. Take the time necessary to combat the lies. Talk to your customers and let them know exactly what’s going on. If necessary, take steps to win their business back. Never give up, and you’ll rise above this new scourge in the post-truth world. Fake news is huge and damaging, but even a single negative review can have lasting consequences. Read this article by the glorious Adebisi Adewusi on how to deal with the review from hell.