The customer’s always right, right?

“A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” is a quote widely attributed to Mark Twain but which ironically, may have never actually been uttered by him. As we go online to establish ‘facts’, we often find ourselves in a cycle of verification, with sources pointing to each other to back up their statements without identifying a primary reference.

The potential danger to brands from a consumer or corporate PR perspective is not only the speed with which stories can gain traction through online news and social media, but that there seem to be fewer and fewer ‘gatekeepers’ available to question their veracity. Consumers will perhaps share a story because it’s funny, quirky or shocking, never mind whether it’s true, while a news organisation will write it up because the social buzz has legitimised it and they feel they can’t afford to be beaten to the punch by the competition.

One crisis communications challenge for companies is that they are often unable to establish the truth of a case at the speed demanded by social media. Quite rightly, they have to be absolutely sure of their position before making a substantive statement in response to an accusation, and as result they are likely to see the story appear while they are still investigating it.

If the accusation is subsequently proven to be false, then the injured party is reliant on those who have given life to the story to place equal weight in correcting it. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that those who shared a Facebook post or retweeted something are going to be bothered to provide an update, while the news media tend to use the correct information as a way of (often quite shamelessly) creating more content.

So we see headlines such as “British holiday club reps admit dolphin-watching trip to Syria was a hoax” or “Vietnamese-Australian admits Facebook did not ban him because of his name.”

The problem is, as Swift wrote 300 years ago, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

This was clearly the strategy behind an email that the CEO of a client recently received from a customer which detailed a supposed tale of woe and included a threat along the lines of: “I’m sure you don’t want to see this all over social media so I’ll wait for your call on Monday with a settlement figure.”

Fortunately the client was able to prove that the claims were false and the email essentially amounted to an attempt at extortion. Sadly, when it comes to brand reputation, the question may not be about reality but can come down to what’s quicker: finding the truth of a customer claim or getting a thousand shares on Facebook.

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