By Ellen Hartman
The lines between real and fake news have become increasingly blurry this year, a point brought to a terrifying, nearly business-ending point on Sunday, Dec. 4, when a fake news report led to a gunman opening fire in the Washington D.C., pizzeria Comet Ping Pong.
Most of us thought the incident would put to rest the conspiracy theory – one of the internet’s strangest – involving Hillary Clinton, said pizza parlor and a child sex ring. Sadly, the rabid conspiracy theorists have now named other pizza parlors as participants. This week, New York’s DNA Info reported that Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s received a threatening phone call suggesting it was linked to Pizzagate, a rumor likely started by what the outlet called “an eerie YouTube video.”
The unchecked spread of these “malicious and utterly false accusations,” to quote Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis, is reason for pause. On a universal and personal level, it is now time to take these seemingly ridiculous fake news stories very, very seriously. As Hillary Clinton said in a speech denying the Pizzagate claims, “it’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.”
It’s also time for restaurant brands to toss the old crisis communications plans and start from scratch. In today’s reality, protecting your brand requires a new approach that reflects both the 24-hour, social nature of news distribution – and the ideas masquerading as news.
To help protect your restaurant from potential fake-news fallout, consider taking the following first steps as soon as possible:
1. Monitor social media.
To effectively combat negative attacks on your brand, you must see them coming.
In the case of Comet Ping Pong, much of the “chatter” that fueled the conspiratorial fire happened on Twitter and Reddit. Moreover, many of the supposed accounts spreading the theories were bots operating at superhuman speed.
Implementing a social media monitoring system makes your brand aware of any negative information in real, superhuman time, so that you can respond quickly and, in the best case, stem the fire.
A wide range of companies offer social media monitoring, each with tools to monitor specific sites. Hootsuite, for example, offers 11 tools that monitor sites such as Reddit, where much of the conspiracy theory was fueled, and review sites so that you can engage with reviewers and resolve any issues in a timely manner.
2. Engage with legal counsel.
Discuss potential responses with legal counsel well ahead of time, and work with them to develop a series of responses that can be used immediately if an attack comes. This could include requesting social media sites to pull a false story or post, but it is important to know your legal standing before anything may happen.
Perry McGuire, counsel with Smith, Gambrell & Russell at its Atlanta office, recommends using both legal and nonlegal tools to manage an incident. “The legal remedies are many and can include a suit for damages, injunctions and potential criminal charges,” he says. “However, these remedies can be costly, both financially and in terms of distraction from your business. Having a non-legal strategy may be best in any given situation. Our firm has been successful in having false posts removed, but it is not a slam dunk in every case.”
3. Strategize with public relations advisers.
It is critical to discuss a crisis communications plan with a public relations professional, even if you do not currently have one on retainer. Agencies are up to date with the latest research, are highly experienced with reputation management and can assist in both long-term strategy and short-term crisis response.
As you put a strategic plan in place, an agency can recommend and implement the tools needed to protect your brand, and initiating a relationship with the agency ahead of a crisis allows your brand to respond more quickly.
Amid a crisis, the agency will develop communication elements – releases, statements, advertisements – that your brand can use to respond quickly. They will also have key relationships with media and social media influencers that you will need so your side of the story is heard. Finally, an agency will be familiar with policies and procedures of the most popular social media sites and can assist your legal team if needed.
The devastating events at Comet Ping Pong, as well as the impact of false news on the presidential election, do have a silver lining. As a direct response to the shooting at Comet Ping Pong, Reddit added its conspiracy subreddit, where much of the Pizzagate vitriol was posted, to its “no ads list.” Before this action, ads from major brands were appearing on the conspiracy site, adding an element of legitimacy.
Prior to that, in mid-November, Facebook and Google announced steps to prevent fake-news websites from generating revenue through their ad-selling services, a sign that the two giants are taking misinformation seriously.
Whatever the fate of false news, it is time for your brand to get real about protecting itself.
Ellen Hartman, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the CEO of Hartman Public Relations, a full-service public relations agency specializing in the foodservice Industry. Hartman has experience working for Coca-Cola, Concessions International, Chili’s, Huddle House, Billy Sims BBQ and Uncle Maddio’s and many QSR brands including Popeyes, Church’s and Arby’s. An industry leader for more than 25 years, Hartman is active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum, Les Dames d ’Escoffier International and has served on the Georgia State University School of Hospitality board. She earned her APR accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America and is a member of PRSA’s Fellow program for senior accomplished professionals.