In 2019, are viral publicity stunts fake news?

Studies have shown that staged publicity stunts can be the quickest way to generate interest around a product or brand, but is it worth potentially sacrificing your reputation? David Sawicki looks at the pros and cons.

Fake news is not a new concept and, contrary to popular belief, certainly not one that was coined around the most recent US Presidential election.

In fact, the proliferation of false information through media outlets is a time-honoured practice stretching back into ancient history. One of its earliest recorded uses was as a political tool in the first century by Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who slandered his political opposition in a brutal whisper campaign – a vicious manoeuvre that proved deadly.

Similarly, viral PR stunts – and more specifically the method of ‘seeding’ a story in a non-transparent way so that its association with your brand or company appears purely organic, is a very old concept. Granted, we are talking about mere decades rather than the century-spanning epic history of fake news.

In the early days of popular internet culture, a PR stunt was crucial if you wanted to spark a piece of viral media. Whether it was the chain-mail propelled Ecko Air Force One campaign in 2006 – which, if released these days could be considered the epitome of fake news, or the thousands of brand-sponsored fake videos that have emerged in the years since.

There’s no denying that manufacturing intrigue works in building curiosity. Why else would the same techniques used by Nike to create fake paparazzi footage of NBA superstar Kevin Durant in 2010 still be utilised in publicity stunts involving celebrity body doubles to this day?

But while this kind of campaign has always been impressive when successfully executed, the backlash from seeding misleading content is becoming palpable. Communications experts – along with journalists, now have a responsibility to help rebuild the trust of consumers.

In a 2017 study, Wildfire agency found that staged leaks and fake product launches were the first and second most effective ways of garnering coverage respectively. But I think it’s clear that the hype it earns in the short term is not worth the long-term negative perception you are forcing upon your brand. No amount of social media clickthrough is worth being known as the next ‘Fyre Festival’.

The question “is this real?”, which used to draw viewers in and engage them with a brand’s message before they even become acquainted with the brand itself, no longer carries the cheeky air it once did. Instead, the revelation that a news topic has actually been disingenuously engineered by a bunch of creatives in PR land is repulsive to an audience.

While very few professional journalists would go out of their way to proliferate false information (the damage to one’s reputation is potentially immense), we are yet to have a serious conversation about the responsibilities PR professionals have and the damage they risk causing to the reputations of their clients and themselves by operating in a way that’s intentionally opaque.

Even the innocuous, such as the misspelling of Cathay Pacific on the side of a plane is now met with a conspiratorial level of scrutiny. An obvious company blunder now begs the question “are they in on the joke?”.

Take a look at last year’s ‘Ivory Lane’ store scandal in Singapore, a physical storefront purporting to sell pre-ban ivory which was revealed to be a WWF awareness campaign – outrage is actively being funnelled into brand channels.

At the time of the WWF campaign, Benjamin Lee of DDB Group told Marketing “the unwashed masses will not be moved by this stunt which validates the idea that it’s okay to peddle fake news for a just cause.” And I find myself agreeing with this.

An example outside of the realm of marketingland is Buzzfeed. On the basis of pumping out content that many considered ‘clickbait’, Buzzfeed was able to build up enormous amounts of traffic that allowed it to transcend from a blog to an established news site.

But even as it built up a very strong standalone political and hard news offering outside of its pop-culture churn, many casual readers still considered it a dubious source due to its longstanding reputation as a clickbait farm. To a large swathe of the population, it did not matter what they achieved in the present as they had already been conditioned by their past experiences with the publication’s name.

So, while subversive campaigns have certainly enjoyed their time in the limelight, is it time to put them away in the pursuit of something more authentic and trustworthy?

Many US brands, particularly fast food franchises, seem to think so. We are currently witnessing the age of the ‘rogue’ brand account; where social media accounts of large franchises appear to go completely off brand. The result is genuine coverage, largely in the pop culture reporting sphere, that highlights the trend. Meanwhile, individuals interact and share the content on social media on their terms, rather than essentially being tricked into sharing an ad.

While not every brand would benefit from having a 20-something effectively vandalise their Twitter account, it does suggest that it’s time for companies to revise their understanding of news value, engagement and consumer trust.

The resurgence of fake news may fade away (in this current online climate, it doesn’t seem likely), but the impact it has had on our industry will only continue to affect the way we interact with both companies and the audience.

But before we come up with a firm solution, we need to remind ourselves that in every industry, there is a great distance between an engrossing story and an elaborate lie.

David Sawicki is a business advisor and the founder and director of Third Wave Ideas.


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