It was when the real news broke of iconic motorcycle manufacturer, Harley Davidson, ceasing US operations that its CEO became the victim of fake news.
Amid authentic media reporting, Harley Davidson's Matt Levatich was quoted on Twitter calling US president, Donald Trump, a "moron" who knew nothing about economics or trade.
When Levatich responded via Harley Davidson's Twitter handle two days later, he denounced the use of misinformation. "It's shameful we live in a time when people create fake quotes," he wrote. "I have not, nor would I ever speak about the President of the United States or anyone else in that way."
Unfortunately, fake news is quickly becoming a mainstay of online media and a hazard for brands in today's world of real-time social media and news cycles. According to Meltwater's online media intelligence tracking service, 1.5 million mentions of 'fake news' appeared in news media in the last 12 months.
What's more, an alarming study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found 'fake news' travels substantially faster than real news on Twitter, with fake news content 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted. True stories took about six times as long to reach 1500 people as false news, while in Twitter's unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods were found to reach a cascade depth of 10-20 times that of facts.
"We found falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude," MIT Sloan School of Management professor and report co-author, Sinan Aral, said. The research was based on 126,000 Twitter cascades, with story authenticity verified via six fact-checking organisations.
Consumers increasingly using social channels, and the proliferation of mobile devices, has fuelled this fire. "False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information. And on social networks, people can gain attention by being the first to share previously unknown [but possibly false] information," MIT stated.
The trust crisis
Fake news is arguably just one of many concerns for politicians, institutions and organisations in this era of eroding trust. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust has declined in Australia for two consecutive years across all institutions - from NGOs to business, government and media.
"Eighteen years' worth of tracking data shows we are at all all-time low for trust in institutions," Edelman Australia CEO, Steve Spurr, tells CMO. "We are trusting individuals more, but if you look at things from a business or government point of view, we are in a trust crisis.
"Trust has moved from whether an organisation transactionally delivers on what it says, to standing for something bigger than just making money, so I can make a choice to trust them like I would an individual. As we have gone to trust each other as individuals more, we have brought these decision-making mechanisms into how we choose friends and people we trust to be part of our lives. And we're bringing those same personal rubriks to brands."
It's important every brand realises trust matters, Ipsos director of corporate reputation, Sally Braidwood, says. "When you trust, you skip steps in transactions - that can be in a political system, in a media environment, or business relationship," she says. "Everything is more efficient if we trust."
Edelman's Barometer also looked into perceptions of fake news and found two-thirds of Australians are conscious and concerned about its rise. This has triggered an all-time low in trust in media (31 per cent) - just 1 per cent more than Turkey.
A global Ipsos study across 18,000 consumers found fake news isn't a universal concept, adding further complexity. One in two Australians think fake news is information in a piece of communications, typically the media, that's incorrect. It could be the result of poor research, being misled, or a deliberate skew to misrepresent or tell half a story.
Another one in two Australians also thinks fake news is what politicians say when they don't like a piece of information or a fact. "The former has the impact of questioning trust in media and reducing and continuing to erode trust more broadly. Whereas the latter around politicians galvanises how some of us feel towards the media," Braidwood says.
Meltwater director of APAC strategy, David Hickey, is working to build recognition of fake news from a corporate perspective. The company focuses on real-time media and social monitoring and is now offering anomaly detection and alerts.
"In Harley Davidson's case, the fake tweet questioned the professionalism of the CEO and was something that would affect his personal reputation as well as the business overall," Hickey says.
For Braidwood, the wider trend is perception over reality. This could be a fake news scenario or simply information out there that isn't necessarily correct. "Perceptions have always been reality, and that's always been the challenge in the marketing and reputation game," she says.
She points to companies not perceived to pay their fair share of corporate tax in Australia as prime examples. "These companies can talk until their blue in the face about how much they are paying, the dollar value they put into the government's coffers, but it's not shifting perceptions," Braidwood says.
"In fact, the more they talk about it, the more they reinforce negative perceptions. You can try and bring in third-party endorsers to have the conversation on your behalf. Or you accept it's something you can't change and create a different dialogue and build your brand on pillars you can control."
In extreme situations triggered by fake news, Braidwood says response then becomes a matter of how your brand deals with a rapidly evolving crisis. "You need to understand the issue, formulate a plan, track that and then understand how well you're tracking against regaining the ground you've lost," she says. "The basics of crisis management very much apply in this new era of fake news."
Yet Hickey sees fake news challenging traditional crisis communications. "The old comms policy I learnt was act quickly and take responsibility even if you can't know whether you are responsible or not. That's not relevant in this situation," he warns.
"You need to act fast but you need to proceed with caution. Timeline is very important, but you need to make sure you're able to control your narrative and dispel false facts with real facts and data points. You need to steer clear of emotional pleas or outbursts. You don't want to just come out saying something is false without having a life raft on cling on to.
"The key is having a much more solid argument that comes from legitimate sources that other legitimate organisations will latch on to, in order to understand there isn't really a story here."
Also vital are connected communications strategies across multiple markets. "Can you get those people online and can they respond instantaneously? And are they across markets and time zones?" Hickey asks.
Braidwood recommends understanding the key pillars of your brand's reputation, and building a plan on how they shape and create narratives to deal with a crisis. However, she agrees fake news is the fastest reputation crisis brands may face.
She also believes this isn't something marketers are usually prepared for, with crisis communications normally the purview of corporate affairs.
"With the clients we work with, reputation and risk sits with the corporate affairs teams who have the crisis playbook, scenario modelling set up, and have everyone internally ready to go when X, Y and Z happens," she says. "In the same way, fake news response is a case of having that fully developed and worked through so everyone knows their role, because it's a rapidly more dynamic situation."
Spurr says it's important to remember brands "live in glass boxes".
"An important step to averting a trust problem is to rigorously look at your brand to see if it is living up to the purpose, values and articulation you want it to have in a 360-degree sense," he says. "Anything incongruous will ultimately be found out.
"It's incredibly difficult but it's why brands that have gravitated towards having a higher-order purpose as a North Star in principle do better than those that don't." Spurr highlights Unilever's purpose-driven brands, which now outperform non-purpose brands by 46 per cent in terms of growth.
Fostering a clear voice on owned channels is another must. "There should be a connection between brand leaders and the general public, and points of view on what you do and don't stand for, plus what you do and don't do," Spurr stresses. "So if someone for whatever reason is trying to hurt your brand, you have an anchor of content and places to send people immediately to. Then you can start responding to the individual challenge that's been thrown up.
"Many companies don't talk about the way they do what they do in their owned channels enough. So when fake news pieces appear, there's no company voice. You can't control what other people do with your brand and how they use it, but you can control how you do it."
It then becomes a fine line between fuelling the fire by being proactive, and being able to identify content simply as "turbulence", Braidwood advises.
In the case of Starbucks reportedly offering free coffee to undocumented immigrants, the company had already been linked to encouraging baristas to embrace racial and social issues.
Follow the leader
What fake news also makes plain is the criticality of leadership in a brand's reputation.
"We are in an era of radical transparency, where, as a corporate, there is an expectation you are transparent, your leaders have a voice and they're scrutinised," Braidwood says. "Just look at Qantas and Alan Joyce, which have taken a stance around socio-political issues.
"Such corporates and CEOs are more willing to stand up and take a point of view because they are accepting they don't exist in a vacuum, where it's just about transactions or profits or a customer relationship."
To do this, leaders must be well supported by marketing, corporate affairs and legal teams so they're prepared, protected and strategies exist behind every piece of communication, Braidwood says. "Their heads are on the block when something goes wrong. Look at the Royal Commission - it's the CEOs as individuals that have had to take on that position," she says.
The more a brand is trusted generally, the more likely they are to be believed in a fake news scenario. "If the public knows more about you than you provide products and services, and they know the values of the organisation, seen the CEO and know what a brand stands for outside of its products and services, they've got more of an information base," Braidwood says.
"We also know 70 per cent of the public that sees a negative piece of information about a company will give that company the benefit of the doubt. While we are in an environment of decreasing trust, there is still willingness. That increases for more trusted companies.
"If you have invested in your reputation, understand your stakeholder universe, have invested in those relationships, and built your profile, you have that positive reputation equity in the bank. So when something like fake news hits, you have a greater base of perception for people to challenge rather than accept that piece of news."
For Braidwood, crisis management requires a different lens to the traditional marketing one of product optimisation and gaining marketshare. Often, this means it's better for skills to sit in other parts of the organisation. At the very least, a healthy tension and awareness needs to exist between the two.
But whatever the structure, there's no doubt marketers are taking on increased responsibility for managing wider customer relationships. It's therefore vital they know risk hits all parts of that journey.
"How do you change some of your perspective on risk without losing your efficacy as marketers and increasing your bond with your customers? Some organisations will be thriving, others may find it challenging," Braidwood concludes.
4 brands that suffered a fake news crisis
1. Harley Davidson
Harley Davidson CEO, Matt Levatich, was quoted by a Twitter user @tinsleman on Twitter on 27 June referring to US president, Donald Trump, as a "moron" who knows nothing about economics or trade. The fake tweet came as the brand announced it was ceasing US operations. In a response via its Twitter handle two days later, the CEO denounced the use of misinformation on social media. "It's shameful we live in a time when people create fake quotes," Levatich wrote. "There's one attributed to me on Twitter. I have not, nor would I ever speak about the President of the United States or anyone else in that way."
The impact of fake news was an even bigger deal for PepsiCo India after fake reports began circulating that its corn puff snack, Kurkure, can catch fire easily, prompting rumours it contained plastic. The content quickly spread to upwards of 20,000 Facebook posts and 3400 links, 242 YouTube videos, six Instagram links and 562 tweets. PepsiCo spent RS20 million ($350,000) to try and curb the rumours. PepsiCo also secured an interim 'John Doe' order from the Delhi High Court to have any posts referencing the fake news removed from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram platforms.
Starbucks has also been in hot water with fake news. The most recent was an Internet hoax suggesting the company issued a coupon entitling African Americans to free coffee. It came following days of protest and a personal apology from CEO, Kevin Johnson, after two innocent black men were arrested in its Philadelphia stores. In some instances, the coupons said: 'Baristas are instructed to use discount code 1488, the combination of two numbers that have become symbols of white supremacy.'
In 2017, fake coupons for a Starbucks 'dreamers day' also circulated, purporting to give undocumented immigrants a 40 per cent discount. Global communications chief, John Kelly, emailed the Associated Press and took to Twitter to deny the coupon.
Another fake news item in 2017 claimed the death of Ethereum cryptocurrency founder, Vitalik Buterin, in a car crash. It came at a time when digital currencies were tipping the scales in terms of buzz and interest. Within hours, Ethereum's value had dropped by US$4 billion. Buterin retaliated with a selfie via Twitter that also featured a new use case for blockchain.