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As the discussion on “fake news” rolls on, companies must consider how they want to deal with the topic. It is important that we do not simply treat this as a trend or fad and rather reflect the underlying dynamic and find the right response.

First, getting the definition right

The difficulty of "fake news" seems to be that almost immediately as the term came up, everyone has laid a claim to it. In its original meaning, "fake news" means the systematic spread of disinformation, often in a sensationalist form, targeted to a constituency where it re-enforces pre-existing beliefs. But with amazing speed "fake news" has become a word for everyone to throw around – not only Donald Trump. One can hear the word muttered in corporate hallways just as much, when faced with partisan reporting about one's own company. 

Secondly, assessing its impact.

"Fake news" are not a phenomenon of just one segment of society or one part of the political spectrum. Rather they are enabled by an unwanted outcome of digitalisation. Social media allow like-minded people to flock together creating bubbles of homogenous opinion that reinforce their beliefs. Yes, these echo chambers can be manipulated, but the core issue is that they discourage dialogue with opposing opinions, as well as fact-checking. And whether it is motivated by value judgements, fake news or not, political activists now have powerful digital communities and campaign tools in their hands to ostracise those persons and institutions whose actions they do not condone. The next "fake news" campaign might not target a politician, but an oil manufacturer, agrochemical company or the pharmaceutical industry. These echo chambers will not disappear. 

Thirdly, finding the right response.

The choice companies face is therefore less one about "fake news" – it is about how to deal with echo chambers and the compartimentalisation of society. 

Many B2B companies might believe it to be more comfortable to stay under the radar screen, stick to engaging with experts only, protect reputation reactively and grumble if they felt their science and business reality is being misrepresented in campaigns. B2C companies have not had this luxury. The direct and immediate link between their reputation and consumer behaviour has forced them to engage and risk exposure.

“The next ‘fake news’ campaign might not target a politician, but an oil manufacturer, agrochemical company or the pharmaceutical industry.”

But with the increase of fake news, more is at stake than just a product or a company’s reputation. As different parts of society stop talking to each other and living in different realities, it is the foundations that allow for successful business that are being brought into question – scientific truth, respect for entrepreneurial autonomy and the legitimacy of our economic order are being scrutinised.

Evasion strategies will not work in this environment. If companies want to retain their licence to operate, they will need to constantly work retain trust and reputation by being present in the digital conversation just as much as in the policy or media arena. 

This requires a mindset shift – away from communicating a message to an audience to being part of a wider conversation and providing meaningful content and perspective. It also means that any assumption of "spin" that old school PR executives might still have, will need to be put to rest. Corporate communication must evolve to provide a more transparent, more engaging and relevant set of content that can not be found elsewhere, if it is to remain relevant.

The comments above reflect the author's personal views and not necessarily that of companies or institutions he is affiliated with.


About the author

Daniel Grotzky is head of brand management and solutions at Roche. His work has included development of the company’s global narrative and overseeing group brand and reputation strategy. Daniel joined Roche in 2011 as spokesperson and later as deputy and interim head media relations. Prior to this, he was corporate spokesperson with Renova Management AG in Zurich. He has also served as a press secretary in various political campaigns in Germany. Previously he was a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Policy Research, a thinktank attached to Munich University.

About this blog

Throughout the year, EACD will publish a series of online content around our 2017 themes: Authenticity, Personalisation of Communications, Digitalisation, Europe, and Trust. To share your insights on these topics, contact info@eacd-online.eu