News travels fast. Fake news travels faster.

Whether you're an entrepreneur, a CEO, or a celebrity, fake news can do real damage to your reputation -- and your brand. According to Pew Research Center, almost a quarter of Americans have unwittingly shared fake news and about two-thirds believe the phenomenon has caused "a great deal of confusion" about current events.

So how can you protect your company from being savaged by the electronic rumor mill?

Try these seven strategies:

1. Separate Fact from Fiction

The first step is to analyze the fake news story and determine what, if anything is accurate. For a quick fix, take a red pen and mark up the actual story as published. Then, post your markup with suggested changes on your website and social channels.

Another option is to get your company's side of the story out quickly through a series of ads on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. This only works if your ads are clever yet easy to "get."

2. Tell Your Truth and Tell It Well

Typically, after a company is attacked, their public relations team writes a formal statement. By the time the statement has been sterilized by the company's lawyer, it is stiff, jargon-riddled, and devoid of a point of view. The statement goes unreported and unshared because it's boring.

Your job is to create a new narrative for the truth that's every bit as interesting as the lies you're trying to dispel.

3. Know the Hot Button Issues Before They Heat Up

Companies must try and plan ahead for issues that are "sensitive" in their industry, such as environmental concerns or labor problems.

Line up a spokesperson and have a holding statement that explains that you are working on a response and provide the general time the statement will be available. You should also have non-defensive talking points available to let your stakeholders know you are being proactive.

4. Think About Silence as a Strategy

If your company chooses silence as a strategy, prepare an internal explanation for your employees and stakeholders. It's not good enough to simply ignore the issue and say nothing -- you need to tell others why you are choosing to keep quiet.

Even if silence is your approach, your internal or external communication team must be able to get a statement and a social media strategy together within 24 hours of the fake news or risk losing control of the narrative.

5. If There's No Traction, Don't Take Action

If a story isn't trending, or people are questioning its validity in comments, a rapid response may not be in your company's best interest. However, if your company or the topic is trending on social media, a response is critical:

  • Check the facts before responding to the claims. Your company could be held liable if your response leads to any implications that affect its stock price or standing in its industry.
  • Consult an attorney before releasing any statement. Your PR firm should be able to refer you to an attorney who understands how PR works and won't turn your statement into legalese.
  • Don't use your company's social channels to question the disinformation. It will only prompt people to further investigate the claims. Instead, suggest alternative news sites for people to consult while you are sort out the crisis.

6. Stay Wary of the Slippery Slant

Consider the source. If the story you're responding to comes from an obviously slanted news outlet, your response could be taken out of context or edited to fit an agenda.

If the outlet is disreputable or has a small readership, silence could be golden. When a response is called for, tell the real story through respected outlets known for objective reporting. Have a public relations strategy in place to address follow-up questions and potential sensitivities.

7. Pick a Side, Before a Side Picks You

If your company is challenged by an activist or political organization, responding too strongly could give the impression that you are allied with the opposing party, potentially alienating certain customers and stakeholders.

On the other hand, companies with a strong corporate social responsibility position often do better in these situations than their middle-ground counterparts because their audience anticipates the response and rewards it with their loyalty.

For many companies, 2017 might be the year that forces brands to examine their beliefs and what they stand for and draw a clear line in the sand.

Published on: Jan 23, 2017