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The fake news lesson for marketers: You will be a victim

Fake news made headlines during the election, but the phenomenon is nothing new to marketers. Just ask Procter & Gamble (P&G).

In early 2010, P&G’s rollout of the most dramatic improvement to its Pampers diaper brand in a quarter century was sidetracked for months by a loosely organized Facebook campaign that claimed that the new product caused diaper rash. There was no evidence for the accusations (while diapers may incubate diaper rash, they don’t directly cause it), but that didn’t faze the legions of angry moms who wanted someone to blame for the agony their babies were experiencing.

P&G was ultimately vindicated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), but the attack made headlines across the U.S. and cost the company momentum and short-term sales. In retrospect, P&G admitted some mistakes. It hadn’t kept its ear close enough to the ground in social channels to pick up on early evidence of concern. It also got involved too late in the Facebook discussion, by which time it was back on its heels.

But the company also did a lot of things right. It brought journalists and popular mom bloggers to Cincinnati and flung open the doors of its labs and executive offices to answer all their questions. It set up a toll-free hotline for the same purpose. It was transparent about the millions of dollars it had spent on testing and safety. It talked openly about the experience and what it learned. And it resolved to become a leader in social media engagement in its industry. More detail about the crisis is here.

Marketers should pay close attention to the evolving fake news phenomenon because they will be targets. The political campaign introduced an important new variable to the spread of misinformation: the profit motive. No longer are detractors motivated just by umbrage. Fake news producers will be looking for new victims that can generate traffic that earns them money. Brands and products will surely be in their cross-hairs.

Plan now for how you will deal with a fake news attack.

  • This of the worst possible PR nightmare scenario you could experience. Prepare a response strategy.
  • Build relationships with the people who influence your market, whether they be bloggers, journalists, regulators, academics, analysts, channel partners, or even competitors. You may need to rally them to your side in the interest of getting to the truth.
  • Listen like crazy. Monitor keyword, hash tags and influential people to pick up early signs of misinformation.
  • Have articulate and credible spokespeople identified in case you need them on short notice.

If attacked, learn from the experience of others:

  • Talk early and often, even if you don’t have a lot to say. Silence will be interpreted as guilt.
  • Answer questions openly. If you don’t have the facts, promise to get them. Then do that.
  • Keep it positive; never get defensive. And never get into a shouting match.
  • Always tell the truth.
  • Be sure you know of any skeletons in the closet. Communicators should never be in the dark during a crisis.
  • Have people active and engaged in major social media channels. You’ll need their credibility in a crisis.
  • Be ready to apologize if you made a mistake. People forgive sincere regret but not deception.

The good news for P&G is that the publicity stirred up by the Pampers crisis ultimately raised awareness of the improvements the company had made to the product. Following CPSC vindication, sales settled in at higher levels than they had previously. You see? If you tell the truth, there’s usually a silver lining.

Paul Gillin

Paul Gillin, host of FIR B2B, is a veteran technology journalist and a thought leader in new media. Since 2005, he has advised marketers and business executives on strategies to optimize their use of social media and online channels to reach buyers cost-effectively. He is the author or co-author of five books, including Social Marketing to the Business Customer (2011), the first book devoted entirely to B2B social media marketing. He is also a social media trainer and coach at Profitecture, a training firm for B2B companies and their channel partners.

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