A communication crisis can’t be predicted, but it can be prevented. Today it is standard to have a protocol for action in situations which can endanger the reputation and equilibrium of an organisation, institution or company. Many of these crises are sparked by fake news, which according to an MIT study is up to 70% more likely than real news to be spread on Twitter.
Unlike traditional communication crises, those relating to lies or disinformation are usually notable for a viral component, making it vital to act quickly and effectively. For this reason, the legal and communication strategies should work together at all times.
At least, this is the first recommendation Garrigues makes in its ‘Fake news crisis protocol’, presented on Tuesday alongside Estudio de Comunicación. According to Carolina Pina, a partner at the firm, there must be coordination between the legal and communication departments, regardless of how much time either department can spare. For this reason, “it is vital that the lawyers have access to all the information in detail”, she said.
This is the moment to create the crisis committee, a body which should include only the most indispensable members of the affected organisation: the CEO, the head of the legal team, the communication director, the head of compliance and the person who is familiar with the facts in the area affected by the fake news story. It may also be helpful to have the community manager participating.
The functions of this committee include analysing the facts and assessing their impact; deciding on the short, medium and long-term lines of action in communication; acting as a centralised spokesperson; monitoring the impact of the fake news; and depending on the case, deciding whether to take legal action.
The first moves for a crisis committee should include a diagnosis of whether there is any truth to the published information, taking into account that legally, this involves diligence in fact-finding and assessing the importance of the source.
After this first analysis, it is important to prevent a possible Streisand effect when assessing whether legal and communication actions could increase the damage caused by the disinformation. Here, Garrigues warns that “an aggressive response designed to deny or demand the removal of information may generate more publicity and dissemination” than it originally had.
To cancel out fake news, the legal and communication strategies should work together at all times.
Based on this premise, they advise drafting a communication plan between both departments working together, although in many cases the communication strategy will have to take the lead. Thus, depending on the crisis level (its virality and impact) various measures can be taken.
When considering legal action, the protocol reminds us that actions can be taken in criminal law for an offence involving libel and slander, or for the disclosing of secret information; or in civil law, such as exercising the right to rectification or honour. In any case, the estimated duration of this type of legal procedure is about one year, which will draw out the process considerably.
Whatever the level of seriousness, “the principles of transparency and honesty must prevail in our response to our stakeholders”, comments Sonia Franco, Communication and Marketing Director of the law firm.
Similarly, Ana Palencia, Communication Director at Unilever, notes that “working with stakeholders is key: the trust we have generated in the past will help get us better treatment in a time of crisis”.
In the case of the healthcare sector, which is particularly sensitive to false information, Mónica Piñuela, Communication Director at Pfizer, explained that “if fake news appears about a medication, we need to monitor it, and we may even have to report the case to the Ministry of Health”.
For his part, Gabriel Martínez, Deputy Director General and Communication Director at Banco Sabadell, underlined that this is a time when “journalism has lost its monopoly on information, though the offline world can still pride itself on being more truthful, even with its more limited reach”.