How to Restore Trust When a Conspiracy Theory Rocks Your Brand

August 27th, 2020 7 min read

Today’s guest post is from Scott Baradell, Founder and CEO of Idea Grove. For more than 15 years, Scott has been a thought leader on the future of public relations. He created one of the original PR blogs, Media Orchard, which at one time had a larger audience than PRWeek. His focus in recent years has been on growing his agency by helping his technology clients grow. In 2020, Scott began writing Trust Signals: The New PR, outlining a new framework for the practice of public relations, to be published by LionCrest in 2021. Put simply, “trust signals” are evidence points, from media coverage and online reviews to website “trust badges,” that make people believe in your brand. Scott has an Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the PRSA and speaks on PR and marketing topics at industry events nationwide. 


To borrow a phrase from George W. Bush’s now-famous critique of President Trump’s inaugural address: people are believing some “weird s–t” these days.

Such as the following: 

Starting on the social media site Reddit and spreading like wildfire across the internet, thousands of people shared content last month accusing the furniture retailer Wayfair of trafficking children. These charges were not based on police investigations, journalistic reporting, or firsthand accounts. 

What evidence was there to support these allegations? None. 

The original post on Reddit was pure speculation after the poster found utility closets on the Wayfair site priced at more than $10,000 each – with girls’ names as product names.

“Is it possible Wayfair involved in Human Trafficking?” the post read. “Or are these just extremely overpriced cabinets? This makes me sick to my stomach if it’s true.”

That was on July 9. By the next day, Wayfair was compelled to issue a statement that “there is, of course, no truth to these claims.”  Snopes and other sources verified that the rumor was false.

But even now, more than a month later, hashtags like #wayfairtrafficking are active on social media.

Conspiracy theories are more frequent, spread more widely, and stamped out less easily than ever before – posing a serious threat to a democratic society. They disseminate misinformation about everything from COVID-19 to hot-button political topics, making it more difficult to develop informed opinions. Those who successfully spread conspiracy theories earn the “social currency” of status and popularity on social media, while rarely being held to account for their damaging claims legally or financially.

For brands like Wayfair, meanwhile, many observers predict that this is only the beginning of the nightmare. 

So, what’s the best way for your brand to fight a conspiracy theory? Here’s are three tips based on my years in crisis communications and reputation management.

#1 Calibrate your denial carefully.

As most brands do, Wayfair quickly and flatly denied the truth of the rumor. I recommend this as a necessary action to take, but with caveats. While issuing a denial is important, it’s just as important not to make too big a deal out of it. If you shout your denial from the rooftops – correcting every false post on social media, issuing a press release on the wire, etc. – your denial will hurt you more than it helps you. That’s because it will further cement your brand’s association with the conspiracy theory, as well as alert many customers and others who were previously unaware of the rumor.

#2 Deprive the rumors of oxygen by countering with positive messages. 

Conspiracy theories don’t stand up to rational analysis to begin with, so a reasoned denial will only take you so far. A better-sustained strategy is to counterprogram with positive stories about your brand. Invest in a PR campaign that shares all the good things your brand is doing in the community. Where appropriate, you can even fight a negative rumor more directly. For example, if a conspiracy theory suggests that your brand is anti-Muslim, anti-gay, or opposed to another group, make sure to include members of that group prominently on your website and in your community outreach efforts. Take substantive action that goes beyond window-dressing, such as creating diversity and inclusion programs at your company and donating to nonprofit organizations. That will protect your brand far better in the long run than an endless stream of denials.

#3 Encourage your customers to tell your story for you. 

Whether your company is denying a false rumor or countering it with positive messages, there’s still one problem: it’s you talking. Naturally, you’re going to say good things about yourself, right? That’s why it’s important to encourage your customer advocates to be visible and vocal in their support of your brand. Provide a great product and outstanding customer service so your customers will want to tell everyone about it. Set up programs to periodically nudge your customers to post reviews on sites like TrustRadius. There’s no better way to build trust with consumers than with third-party validation. 

Chances are, a conspiracy theory like the one that hit Wayfair will never hit you. But in a world as crazy as ours has been lately, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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