SMRT hit by another PR storm after choosing to clarify ‘fake news’ on CEO

SMRT has come under fire once again, this time for defending itself on social. In a recent Facebook post debunking information being circulated about its CEO Desmond Kuek, the train operator called out an online report as  “obviously fake!” and further clarified that Kuek did not fire 50% of the night maintenance crew in SMRT after coming in as CEO.

Many netizens took issue with the tone of the post - especially the line “This is obviously fake!” -  calling it “unprofessional” and “defensive”. Online sentiment also called the train operator out for having time to refute fake news but not having any to focus on its train updates on its service.

The post garnered over 528 reactions, 563 shares and 373 comments at the time of writing. Read it here:

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Marketing has reached out to SMRT for comment.

Several PR and social folks Marketing spoke to said that while it is necessary to clarify your company’s position when it comes to factual inaccuracies, especially in the advent of fake news, brands need to take extra care in doing so in a crisis communications scenario.

Kristian Olsen, managing director of Type A, said that SMRT provides a service to the nation. As a service or as a brand in general, it should not have respond officially in an “aggressive and overtly defensive manner”.

“There is definitely a much better way to respond to the fake news that was being shared, possibly by garnering more support from the public rather than add to their ire,” Olsen explained.

I'm not sure if SMRT got this post approved internally before posting it up.

Agreeing with Olsen was Scott Pettet, LEWIS’ senior vice president of Asia Pacific, who added that brands should steer also clear from using the term ‘fake’ or ‘fake news’. He added that it is not a word association any brand would want "since it suggests some larger scheme or deliberate attempt to mislead."

He added that using such terms might also “fan the flames” given the unhappiness already surrounding the brand. In such cases, SMRT could simply have referred to ‘misinformation’, which is a less emotive and more neutral term. When it comes to tonality, Pettet said that SMRT’s response was “much too defensive and emotion charged”. He added:

Rarely – if ever – would I advocate using exclamation marks in public statements of this nature. It’s over the top and unnecessary.

That being said, he explained that one of the key tenants of crisis communications is that brands must remove all emotion and deal with facts only.

“This can be difficult when situations involve senior company figures coming under attack. Human instinct is to want to defend ourselves and our reputations, however this must be resisted and the interests of the company and brand put first,” Pettet added.

Should SMRT have responded to the ‘fake news’ claim?

Another issue in this scenario is whether or not the response was a knee-jerk reaction on behalf of SMRT. For Pettet, it would be on a case-by-case evaluation, based on the traction that the misinformation has generated.

“The traction would need to be significant in order to warrant a response like this. If indeed the misinformation is so vastly incorrect, then it may not have warranted a response at all,” Pettet explained.

For Olsen, brands should in fact, set the record straight when it comes to fake facts being spread. But, it hinges on the approach they take and how the brand relays its point of view and side of the story. When asked if social media was an appropriate medium to clarify this, Olsen explained that there's no one strategy in using social to put your points across. However, it should be heeded that social media is a place where people are not afraid to voice their true feelings (however right or wrong they may be).

“You need to realise the old days of putting out a statement via the press are over. So you need to use social media and be prepared,” Olsen added. He added that brands also need to be ready to answer questions that will arise during times of crisis by  having an FAQ set up prior to the publicising of a statement and having that FAQ updatedas more questions come in.