Last week, leading sportswear brand Adidas was the subject of an elaborate prank by the Clean Clothes Campaign and activist group The Yes Men, known for creating spoof campaigns to draw attention to corporations and raise concerns on social issues.
Designed to put pressure on the German company to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement, the campaign comprised three fake press releases sent to various media outlets.
The elaborate spoof may sound like something from a Hollywood film, but this type of activity is not a new phenomenon. Established brands and companies including Starbucks, Mcdonald's and even the Bank of England have all been the target of The Yes Men over the past 17 years.
Hoax releases can have serious consequences for a business, often resulting in loss of earnings and reputation – as well as potential legal action. In 2016, French construction firm Vinci was the subject of a hoax release, which said its chief financial officer had been sacked and that it would be restating its financial statements for the previous year and the first half of the then-current year. As a result, its share price dropped.
“There’s no escaping the threat of fake news, and it’s not easy to regain public trust with the rise of misinformation,” explains James Ruane, managing partner at international strategy firm Stonehaven.
Ruane argues action is almost always needed, even when it’s a difficult challenge to face, although the level of activity depends on the severity of the issue and needs to be carefully thought through.
“Hitting back too hard may help you to feel better, but it will just create a vicious circle and exemplify the image being portrayed about you,” he explains.
Ruane believes there is a spectrum of actions that brands can take to resolve a hoax press release campaign. First, the company can condemn the action calmly. Another option is to communicate its brand values, as taking the moral high ground can legitimise the type of company it is and build support.
Alternatively, it could take the sting out of the argument with humour – but this depends on the issue and the type of brand, he warns.
Finally, a company can avoid a response altogether. “It may be better to wait and let the story run out of steam, rather than trying to fight it,” advises Ruane.
“Campaigners and detractors will always find innovative ways to criticise and shine a light on difficult issues,” says Sean Hamilton, senior associate director at The PHA Group.
“This whole incident shows the importance of good crisis preparation and having holding statements ready to go. When the unexpected happens, you must be in a position to respond quickly and accurately,” he says.
“There’s also a big lesson here for reporters who need to be on alert for fake releases – because this is a trick that will get used again.”
Jon McLeod, partner at DRD Partnership, agrees the best way to avoid a crisis is through preparation. He says businesses, as part of their due diligence, should be equipped to respond immediately to the 24/7 news cycle and that they should maintain close contact with the media to ensure misreporting can be instantly corrected on a “systemic basis”.
“Finally, a clear programme of ‘digital repair’ is required to work with search engines and other platforms to remove incorrect content,” adds McLeod.
Rachel Allison, founder of comms and marketing agency Axe & Saw, believes economic stagnation, social fragmentation and political uncertainty have led to increased scrutiny of brands.
“Consumers and stakeholders demand (brands) take a more active role in addressing critical issues such as climate change, inclusivity and human rights,” she explains.
Many companies have struggled to effectively respond to these demands because they are driven by “performative targets rather than meaningful changes”, says Allison. “This has led to revelations that many brands are not living up to their stated values and commitments.”
To regain trust, she argues brands must take a “strategic approach” to activism by being transparent about challenges and the steps they are taking to address them.
Additionally, Allison advises that brands must limit exposure to hoaxes by implementing robust security measures and aligning messaging with their values and commitments, making them central to their storytelling to limit damage to their reputation.
Ruane believes brands can learn a lot by looking at how their reputation is seen, especially among critical influencers.
“In many cases, this will help to identify reputational opportunities, vulnerabilities to address, or counterarguments to ready. However, waiting for a crisis to act is a high-risk strategy, and makes it all too easy for others to manage your reputation for you,” he warns.
“A well-thought-out plan will help enable them to communicate effectively to not only handle the media pressure but to instil public confidence and tackle the erosion of trust,” adds Amanda Evans, executive director of media strategy at Jargon PR.
“In some instances, sending out a firm, authoritative, to-the-point statement, which also addresses the fact the company will take legal action against the persons responsible for the false allegations, can also help mitigate the impact on both customers and the wider public,” she says.
Toby Conlon, managing partner and head of corporate communications at Ogilvy UK, believes that successful pressure campaigners, like The Yes Men and Clean Clothes Campaign, simplify a complex issue and present a binary choice to consumers where there appears to be only one right answer. He says brands shouldn’t draw up battle lines because they are already on the bad side of a binary.
“Simplify it, but on your own terms,” he says. “Be as creative as your critics. Use language everyone can get. Be a little vulnerable, it helps build relationships. Most of all, don’t let a gap open between your comms and your progress – or you’ll step into the biggest reputation bear trap of all.”
“It may sound clichéd, but communications need to be used as a shield and a sword, to shape reputation, build goodwill and create commercial environments to compete in. Businesses that use reputation as a strategic asset to get ahead of change, rather than respond to it, will be the winners, even in times of crisis,” concludes Ruane.