Have you read about the French company Laboratoires Berden and its charismatic CEO, Eric Dumonpierre? Founded in 1996, the company launched Mutorex, an anti-obesity drug. Dumonpierre rapidly became a star chief executive, winning several awards for corporate social responsibility. He invested in an all-hybrid vehicle fleet; then planted trees all round Paris. His employees were given paid leave to participate in humanitarian missions; and he instituted a 32-hour workweek. Celebrated at industry conferences and in political forums, he was frequently cited in the media.
But in the mid-2000s his reputation took some hits. Rumours of serious side effects to Mutorex surfaced. An executive committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. One of the philanthropic initiatives was exposed as a front for employing child labour in Asia. Still, by 2009 Dumonpierre had weathered the storms and the company was thriving again.
What’s most incredible about Laboratories Berden and Dumonpierre is not their success or how their reputations recovered from scandal. It’s that neither the company nor its CEO ever existed.
They were created, and kept alive for a decade, by successive classes at HEC Paris, one of the world’s leading MBA course providers. This exercise in corporate reputation management in the Internet age was directed by Professors Ludovic François and Dominique Rouziès. It used two groups of students: one to build up the company and its CEO with false stories; the other to try to tear them down with scandals and fake news.The objective was to better understand better what drives visibility on the internet because, in business, visibility is what sustains sales momentum. Information found via search engines informs decisions customers make. A brand’s reputation may be only as good as what appears on the first search-results page. So, if false news sticks, it carries real commercial consequences.
The exercise ended in 2014, but web searches today still turn up more than 20,000 references to Berden and Dumonpierre.
It worked because students used techniques that academics had already indentified as drivers of fake news. Online Readers are more likely to distribute vivid stories that inspire emotions such as fear (polluted rivers), disgust (child labour), and delight (32-hour work week). Using flat language such as “Berden reported a chemical spill” is much less effective than “Berden dumped highly toxic, cancer-causing chemicals into our local river.”
Believability was boosted through repetition, reposting and relinking stories across an ecosystem of sites and accounts they had created. Repetition increases the perceived accuracy of false news. In short, familiarity creates credibility.
Building defenses against false news may soon become an important task for brands and companies.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa