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Top 10 Lessons From the Rise of 'Fake News'

The serious implications of “fake news,” and how to protect your firm.

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One of the most striking developments in 2016 and continuing into the new year has been the rise of “fake news,” which stormed the social media landscape and became so integrated into the mainstream that many believe it played an essential role in putting Donald Trump in office.

The term “fake news” refers to fictitious content that attempts to (and all too often does) appear as factual, and is often featured on falsified websites designed to appear as legitimate media outlets. The goal of fake news is to trigger viral sharing across Facebook, Twitter and other social media, resulting in advertising dollars for its producers.

The widespread dissemination and consumption of fake news has significant implications — not only for the public, but also for the manner in which law firms and other companies market their brands. The success of fake news provides many valuable lessons to legal marketers looking to enhance their firms’ positions or to defend their reputations from unwarranted attacks. Due to the increasingly suspect nature of digital information, law firms must also take greater care to effectively and ethically communicate their messaging to clients, policymakers and other influential players in the legal realm.

How to Protect Your Firm

To protect your firm and promote its brand and thought leadership in this tenuous digital landscape, here are 10 important considerations to keep in mind:

1. People are increasingly distrustful of online information and seek information that is unquestionably credible. Part of the success of fake news relies on another area of growing distrust of the mainstream media, fueled by efforts by Breitbart and other partisan websites to label mainstream news sources as themselves purveyors of fake news. In this environment of growing digital distrust, it is essential to position your firm as ethical and above the fray. Display integrity — don’t manipulate facts, use misleading headlines, or make unfounded assertions in articles or blog posts. Double-check your sources (even going so far as to see who might own an unfamiliar website or news source you’re relying on), and substantiate statements with links to reputable reports and other source material. There is a real opportunity if your firm can gain a reputation as a reliable and credible source of useful information.

2. Transparency proves validity and encourages trust. In today’s vast digital environment, many people struggle to determine which organizations are valid. A recent Stanford Study that surveyed nearly 8,000 students in middle school, high school and college found that the overwhelming majority couldn’t correctly evaluate the validity of the online information they were presented with, whether in a tweet, a news article, or other type of content. But this problem, obviously, isn’t limited to young people. Fake news creators intentionally spoof well-known news outlets, or disguise their sites as accepted local news sources. By making an effort to be transparent, you will stand out and encourage trust among your clients. The more trusted you are the more successful you will be in promoting and marketing your services.

3. Emotional appeal can be more influential than facts. Fake news relies on engaging readers emotionally through targeted content and compelling narratives. During the final three months of the presidential election campaign, a BuzzFeed analysis found that the top election stories on fake news sites generated more Facebook engagement than stories from trusted major news outlets. By applying similar emotive techniques to legal marketing, you can achieve the same results. Introduce interesting, click-worthy narratives, or frame stories around beliefs that potential clients already hold dear. Emphasize the real-world impact of your firm’s work rather than numbers and statistics.

4. Social media users are drawn to stories about “real people.” Personalize your firm’s social media channels by having your lawyers post items related to their practices or to pro bono activities, as appropriate to each channel. Make an effort to create material that people will want to share, such as photos and videos of heartwarming undertakings in which members of your firm may be engaged. Encourage all employees to “like” pages and share social media posts across platforms.

5. People form immediate impressions — and act on them. Many news stories, whether real or fake, are reposted solely on the strength of their headlines. Some 59% of links shared on social networks aren’t even clicked on, according to a recent study — suggesting that the majority go unread. Capitalize on this phenomenon by identifying powerful key messages to place in headlines, photo captions, and other highly visible areas, and encourage your social media followers to share them.

6. The smallest message can have the greatest impact. When Eric Tucker posted a photograph of parked buses in Austin, TX, to his Twitter account, alleging that they were used to transport paid protesters to an anti-Trump rally, he only had about 40 followers. But the message was shared more than 365,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and even Donald Trump weighed in — despite the fact that the allegations proved untrue. Be careful about the messages you’re putting out on social media, however brief or low-key — they may reach a much larger audience than anticipated. And when they do, it’s not easy to backpedal, as Tucker discovered when his attempt at a correction received only minimal attention.

7. Fake news can damage your firm’s reputation. Any company or corporation can be impacted by fake news, and law firms are no exception. Pepsi learned this lesson the hard way when CEO Indra Nooyi was falsely quoted as saying that Trump supporters should “take their business elsewhere.” Trump supporters called for a boycott of Pepsi products. In reality, the CEO simply relayed the notion that some employees were concerned about his election. That event proved to have the single biggest negative impact on the company’s reputation than any other in 2016. Do your best to avoid similar pitfalls by issuing clear public statements, and taking extra care when commenting on contentious issues.

8. Fake news can have devastating consequences in the real world. When fake news created through viral emails and circulated on social media alleged that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were running a child sex ring out of a Washington, DC, pizzeria, the allegations prompted one man to open fire in an effort to halt the restaurant’s alleged operations. While this is an extreme example of fake news gone awry, it’s nevertheless a good idea to monitor your online reputation to ensure that your firm remains unaffected. Monitor search results, set up a Google alert, or employ more sophisticated monitoring software. If your firm is drawn into a fake news story, check whether you can have the false report taken down. Assess the damage, weigh all relevant factors, and determine whether to issue a response or simply to ride the drama out.

9. Being associated with fake news can hurt your brand. Both Facebook and Google have come under fire for facilitating the spread of fake news during the election, and have taken some measures to discourage questionable content. Be careful when sharing news stories on your firm’s social media pages or citing articles in blog posts — again, double-check sources to confirm that they are valid, and be aware that fake news sites often pose as real ones. Check Snopes or other resources for a list of fake news outlets, and ensure that your firm does not unwittingly have advertising posted on these pages through automated ad buying systems.

10. Only give interviews to and publish contributed content in verified media outlets. If you’re working with a public relations agency, they should never send media opportunities to you for media outlets that aren’t credible or are owned by controversial organizations you don’t want your firm associated with. But not all PR professionals do their due diligence or provide detailed information about an outlet when presenting an opportunity. If you’re presented with a media opportunity — or receive an incoming request from a journalist — with an outlet you’ve never heard of or don’t have substantial enough information about, don’t jump the gun. Do your homework before deciding whether or not to participate.

*****
Nick Gaffney
is a member of this newsletter’s Board of Editors and is founder of Zumado, a San Francisco-based legal PR firm.

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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