Protecting your brand from ‘fake news’

Posted on: December 17th, 2018

It was Mark Twain who famously said “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Today, the relentless rise of social media leaves questionable corporate practices and bad behaviour, the failings of products or services and ‘fake news’ shared in an instant. The pressure on brands and those that protect them has never been greater, says Mark O’Halloran and Emma Stevens.

At the start of 2018 few people would have heard of the firm Cambridge Analytica. Fast forward 12 weeks, and the business is known around the world, has fallen into administration and has taken the shine, and a $50bn hit, off the polished reputation of social media giant Facebook.

In March this year, the question of who delivers the chicken to one of our favourite fast food restaurants is unlikely to have troubled many diners. But when they failed to do the one job asked of them, it hit headlines faster than you can say ‘finger lickin’ good’.

Investing in your brand

Every business recognises and invests considerable amounts of money building, maintaining and managing their brand. But today, more so than ever, corporate brands are held under greater scrutiny and challenged when they do not live up to the promises made.

As every branding professional will say, a business’s brand is the sum of what it does, what it says it does and, crucially, what others say about it. A brand is a living relationship between a business and its market and needs to be nurtured and maintained by marketing, advertising and PR people.

But as business becomes more diverse and more transparent with ever greater numbers of stakeholders, lawyers too have a vital role to play in anticipating problems and protecting brands. “We see greater emphasis on brand protection measures in supplier contracts,” says Emma Stevens, an Associate Solicitor in the firm’s Dispute Resolution team.

“In addition to the expected clauses on compliance with, for example, GDPR and modern slavery, it is now common to see greater emphasis on ensuring suppliers live up to and reflect the brand positioning of their clients and customers. This will often include restricting public commentary or talking to the press, together with indemnities should anything go wrong.

“Businesses will spend considerably more on due diligence and background checks before choosing key suppliers and partners.” And when things do go wrong, it is the lawyers as well as a business’s PR advisers that are the first point of call.

Managing a brand crisis

“Lawyers bring a different perspective to crisis management that brand owners need and the law often requires,” says Coffin Mew Partner and Head of Commercial Services Mark O’Halloran.

“Take, for example, a product recall. There will be strict guidelines a business will need to follow with lawyers on hand to advise. But it is the PR’s skill in crafting a more empathetic tone of voice that will shape the wording and, of course, press interest.”

There will be times, however, when only a lawyer’s touch will do.

“Sometimes, it will be necessary to take a robust approach in a crisis,” explains Mark, “perhaps serving an injunction on the media to restrict the reporting of an issue. This is not uncommon in court cases where the anonymity of an individual or business is needed to ensure a fair court hearing.

“But they should be used with caution,” warns Mark. “It is all but impossible to control a story once on social media, creating the absurd position where the rest of the world can read about an issue except those in the country where legal proceedings are under way. The damage to reputation can be greater than if a story were just left to run its course.

“It will often be better for the brand to engage in an open and authentic way with the market rather than hide behind po-faced legal statements which sometimes escalate the impact of the crisis in all the wrong ways.”

There are no hard and fast rules to managing a crisis, and recent corporate history is littered with mistakes, from Gerald Ratner’s now infamous quote in 1991 on the quality of the jewellery sold in his high street stores, to United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger in 2017 whilst being filmed by fellow passengers.

“Sometimes,” says Emma, “the only sensible thing to do, taking in to account legal advice and commercial practicalities, is to put your hands up, take responsibility and address the problem head on.”

In April this year Starbucks found itself at the sharp end of public opinion when two African-American students were kicked out of a coffee shop in the US and then promptly arrested. Their crime – they were waiting for a friend to discuss a property deal before ordering.

Starbucks was quick to respond, sending its CEO to personally apologise to the two individuals, closing all its US stores for one day for anti-bias training and establishing a fund for students of colour wishing to explore entrepreneurism. Its actions were applauded.

“Customers like to believe that a brand cares about them and what they think,” says Mark, “and sometimes that means dealing with a crisis in a sensitive and authentic way that reinforces brand values over money.”


If you would like further advice on how to protect your brand or how to manage a brand crisis please get in touch with our Commercial Services Team 


Article originally published in our client magazine Connect. Click here to read the full issue