Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The need to safeguard brands and businesses against reputational damage is critical in an era of fake news. Reputational damage can have a long-term effect on a brand’s equity or share price, according to Matthew Barclay, Africa director for media intelligence company Meltwater. “Reputation is a fragile thing,” he told delegates at the Integrated Marketing Communication Conference held in Midrand earlier this month, adding that the power of the news – even when it’s fake – has never been greater.

More than half of US citizens get their news from social media, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2017. Companies or brands that find themselves on the wrong side of that narrative, said Barclay, are in trouble.

The 2016 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor notes: “Companies today are being punished more severely for poor leadership than they are rewarded for good behaviour, which makes a sharp focus on leadership communication a corporate imperative, not a nice-to-have.”

Decentralised news and unprepared leaders are the perfect storm for public relations and reputational disasters, said Barclay – which is why it’s so important for organisations to have a crisis communication plan in place.

How should they go about doing setting one up? Barclay outlined 10 steps.

First, anticipate a potential crisis by conducting a reputation audit. “Mark down anything that could have a potential impact on your brand from a reputational perspective. The more scenarios you can plan for, the better prepared you will be.”

Second, identify the company’s crisis squad, including legal counsel and a spokesman. Next, train the spokesman how to handle crises and the media. “It’s terrifying if you haven’t had the proper training,” said Barclay.

The big take-out:

It’s essential, in an era of fake news, that companies have a crisis communication plan in place to manage potential reputational damage

It’s also important to set up a monitoring and notification system – some kind of system that allows you to be notified in real time about risks.

Fifth, know your stakeholders. To this end, give employees, particularly spokesmen, an idea of how they should respond in the event of a crisis.

Craft holding statements in advance, including a variety of quick holding statements that will buy the company time to properly understand the crisis and formulate an appropriate response.

Seventh, assess the crisis situation carefully including establishing if it is fake news, and determining how credible the source or author of any negative news is before providing a response.

While finalising and adapting key messages, remember to keep the response clear and concise, and don’t leave room for misrepresentation or misunderstanding.

Next, respond at the source. “If you have a fire on a particular platform, get in there and respond on that platform,” said Barclay. “This means that if your source is on social media, respond on social media.”

Finally, carry forward any lessons you learn along the way. According to Barclay, Meltwater is increasingly being asked to analyse how other companies deal with crises.

Barclay pointed to Capitec’s recent handling of fallout from a Viceroy Research report on the company as a textbook case of how to handle a reputational crisis. The bank’s share price plummeting by nearly 25% in the immediate aftermath of the release of the report, which accused the bank of being a loan shark – but it has since recovered on the back of claims that the short seller’s report was riddled with inaccuracies. A major reason for this recovery was Capitec’s management of the crisis. The bank very quickly sent out a holding statement, which gave it time to analyse the Viceroy report in detail. By the end of the day, it had sent out text messages to every Capitec customer telling them that their money was safe and providing a link to a statement putting forward their position.