Aside from the stress, anxiety and isolation brought on by the pandemic, the public has also had to deal with determining if what they’re hearing and seeing in the media and/or online is true or false, or various shades of both.

In the fast pace of social media, brands sometimes must deal with such challenges. Recognizing the difference between misinformation and disinformation is important in knowing how to respond to each quickly and effectively.

What’s the Difference?

Both share the fact that the information being disseminated is false. The difference is that misinformation is not shared with harmful intent. Disinformation is purposely sent out for the purpose of maligning a person, group or company.

The Impact

Left unaddressed, both can seriously damage trust, corrode and clog channels of communication, and result in critical economic setbacks for a company that can go on for years. Being prepared can reduce the impact and shorten the duration of false information, intended or not.

Rapid Response Team

As in any type of crisis communications preparations, it’s important to have a team in place once a crisis hits. Each member must know their responsibilities beforehand and be prepared to act quickly.

Dr. Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, was once quoted as saying, “Research suggests that fake news spreads faster and deeper than the truth, so combatting disinformation after the fact can be like fighting a losing battle.” That doesn’t have to be the case, as there are ways to deal with disinformation.

The Source

Identifying the source of false information is critical. The quickest and best remedy is for the designated company representative to meet, if possible, with the source and discover why they made such charges and the basis of them. If it was misinformation, it can usually be quickly and satisfactorily addressed with facts and credible evidence, if the source is willing to publicly retract their claim on the same platforms they posted.

If, however, the source is not willing to meet or even talk over the phone or answer emails, it’s probably a case of disinformation. Here are some tips to handle that.

Managing Disinformation

Assuming the source is identified but unwilling to meet or talk, the next step is to gather as much information as possible to understand the source. This will help in determining if the motive for launching the attack was political, commercial, etc.

Speed is of the essence, but not before all information is gathered and analyzed. Allies and community partners should also be alerted of what happened and updated regularly.

When the company responds, it should not only seek out public support of allies and community partners, but also be transparent with its target audiences.

In addition to alerting them to what’s transpired, whether they’re aware of it or not, the brand should also ask them to pause and think about the disinformation and even attempt to verify it before thinking of sharing any disinformation on their social media platforms.

It would also be helpful to ask them to post their support on both their and the brand’s sites.

In addition to acting on these tips, brands would be wise to revisit how they’re currently monitoring and listening to consumers, as well as checking their communications infrastructure even if there is no ongoing crisis.

Also worth revisiting is the brand’s statements on transparency and ethics. Both need to be prominent on its social media sites.

“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.” – Scott Cook, Founder, Intuit

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.