What to learn from DC pizza brand's fake news nightmare

| by S.A. Whitehead
What to learn from DC pizza brand's fake news nightmare

The potentially brand-ending effects of rumor in the Internet age became painfully evident Sunday when a fake news report connected to Washington D.C. pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, led to a gunman opening fire inside the restaurant.

Comet Ping Pong's problems started last month when — without a shred of evidence — online rumors began spreading that the restaurant was tied to an alleged child abuse ring involving the Clintons, though again — not a single piece of information or evidence suggested anything like that. Though national and global news stories have repeatedly refuted the malicious gossip, a 28-year-old gunman still believed the stories and went to Comet Ping Pong Sunday afternoon with rifle in hand to first threaten employees verbally. He then fired the weapon at least once amidst a house full of diners, according to the New York Times.

The words of the restaurant owner, James Alefantis, made it clear how devastating this type of senseless situation can be for both restaurant brands and those who make their living from them. As Alefantis told the New York Times, "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences. I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."

Although malicious gossip and rumors have always threatened individuals and organizations, today's never-ending news cycle and non-stop social media environment have accelerated communication. That's why it's painfully clear that all brands that plan to survive must have plans in place to both stave off these types of situations and respond quickly if they occur. Below are three things that all brands should do to help prevent these types of issues, according to Hartman Public Relations President and CEO Ellen Weaver Hartman:

  1. Hire a social media monitoring service NOW: You must know what is being said about your brand online in order to effectively develop counter-communication at the lightning speeds needed to cut off the original fake news item's blood supply — social media chatter. The only way to do that is to have people in place monitoring what's being said and shown. 
  2. Get procedures in place now with legal counsel: Make sure your legal professionals have researched the best approaches for response via Facebook and all forms of social media, and have a plan in place that they have shared with you ahead of time.
  3. Get procedures in place now with public relations advisers: Ensure the public relations professionals you have available know the latest research on this topic, stay abreast of it and have a plan in place should it occur. Among other things, that means they should have already developed "shell" communication statements and releases, so your brand can respond quickly.

Five steps to squelch fake news

Now, what to do if the worst happens and injurious "fake news" is discovered online or elsewhere about your brand? At Ritter Communications, chain restaurant public relations and crisis consultant, Brad Ritter, said that the recent incident serves as a great reminder to all brand leaders that they need to have both, a well thought out crisis plan and airtight social media monitoring capabilities in place beforethis kind of situation occurs. Then, if the brand receives any type of reputational threat, leadership needs to assess the situation immediately by answering these questions:

1.     What are the real facts?
2.     Who is behind the allegations, and what is their motivation?
3.     How credible do the claims appear?
4.     How quickly are they spreading and through what channels?
5.     How damaging are the claims?

Ritter added that knowing exactly, "if, when and how to react can be a difficult decision to reach. On one hand, responding quickly can quash the fake news. On the other, it can call more attention to it and give it credibility." But when response is warranted, follow these steps, he said: 

  • Communicate first through the same channels where the inaccurate posts are appearing.
  • State that the offending source is wrong, its information is incorrect and, if need be, direct people to a correct source of information.
  • Contact mainstream media and bloggers who have republished the fake news. Provide them with correct facts and ask that inaccurate information be deleted.

On that last point, it's a good idea to know those reporters and editors by name and contact information way ahead of need. It is sometimes quite difficult to find current correct information on these individuals, and that holds doubly true when your business is under direct fire.

And, finally, one last tip from a former longtime police beat reporter. Please also think hard about complaining about law enforcement for lax response to these types of situations, as was the case with one restaurateur located near Comet Ping Pong this week.That business owner lambasted local and even federal law enforcement in theNew York Timesfor what she considered insufficient response by those agencies

While that may be the case, the laws and regulations around internet communication and crime are often not adequate to allow for law enforcement to fully respond appropriately. In other words, police can only enforce laws that are on the books, and this process has not kept up with the speed of technological change in communication. Likewise, the overall staffing among law enforcement for internet-based crimes of any kind is meager at best, so the true solution to the problem of fake news may, at least in part be, pushing for better laws and better funding for enforcement. 

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Crime, Marketing / Branding / Promotion

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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