There is a huge branch of the “fake news” business that gets no attention at all: the fake news consumed each day by corporate America that has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with business – the bulk of the $18 trillion U.S. economy.
We’ve been sorting through this kind of thing for years — It’s often why our clients hire us. I’ve also been talking on the subject recently in a speech called Fighting Fake News (see an excerpt here).
The everyday expression for figuring out what’s fake and what isn’t is: Due diligence. Good businesses are good at it, bad ones aren’t.
Six months ago, the term “fake news” meant false political information that the originator or spreader of the “news” knew was false. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, as the Wall Street Journal helpfully pointed out this week with Vladimir Putin’s Political Meddling Revives Old KGB Tactics.
By now, the term has been expanded to mean anything that’s partly or wholly untrue in the eye of the beholder, whether or not it was intentionally misstated.
What is corporate fake news? The massive amount of company, financial and personal information reported but never checked. Plenty of what’s put out is accurate, but a lot isn’t. Ask any public relations professional you know who will give you a frank appraisal of his business. If you issue a news release that’s well written, with nice quotes from your client, what happens to it?
In many cases, it will be printed word for word as a news story. There will be a news byline over it, but the body of the release will be all but unchanged. The “story” will be on dozens of television news department websites, in local newspapers, and then reproduced again based on that “reporting.”
Do “quality journalists” do this? Not that way.
Off the Beaten Track
But consider a company that is not sexy and attractive to Wall Street bankers or a lot of investors – perhaps a mid-sized printing company in Ohio or a private auto-parts manufacturer in Indiana. If that company issues a dull news release, the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune will almost certainly devote zero hours to verifying what’s in that news release. They may not report on the company at all.
If the company is public, you may get a couple of lines with earnings, usually in the context of “beating” or “missing” what analysts had predicted the earnings would be. Good luck relying on that. You would need to ask, are those the analysts who missed the dot-com bubble, the housing crisis, last year’s plunge in oil prices?
What are you to do then, when you are considering hiring someone who worked at one of these thinly covered companies? Or if you may want to enter into a long-term contract with one of them, or perhaps acquire one? Of what use will the “news” about the company be when you start looking?
There is another dimension to the problem aside from what the company says about itself. Company valuation is always relative to the health of its competitors, and they too have not only the same interest in promoting themselves, but also in reflecting negative news on their competitors.
If there is good news about fake news in politics today, it’s that people have heard a lot about made-up “news” sites, and reputable news outlets have devoted resources to reporting on them. Whatever your political viewpoint, there are plenty of places to go that will scrutinize the other side’s speeches and writings.
But where do you go if you need to scrutinize a thinly-traded or private company in refrigerated freight? Printing? A company that imports socks from Italy or manganese from Africa?
If you care enough, if the issue is valuable to you, you do your own research. Just as in the political realm, you read widely from a variety of sources and make your own decision.
The problem with any kind of fake news detection comes when what is said is partially true. Neither black nor white, but gray. Evaluating gray takes the kind of gray matter a computer does not offer.
In politics, we see this all the time. President Obama’s promise “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” has been given evolving degrees of truthfulness ratings since the time he said it. Many people have been able to keep their doctors; many have not (absent paying several times what they used to pay).
In business, things are almost always a shade of gray. During due diligence, an interview with a person who has posted an enthusiastic recommendation of a person on LinkedIn can reveal notes of hesitancy or qualification. You can ask questions that relate to matters not covered in the recommendation.
If a company has posted wonderful earnings, in depth analysis of the figures can show you that “wonderful” can mean “better than expected, but not sustainable because the company keeps selling assets to make its numbers.” Interviews can tell you it’s a lousy place to work, which could mean something if it’s a service business and may reflect poorly on the CEO and board.
As we tell our clients all the time, if you are about to hand the keys to a $30 million business to someone, doesn’t it make sense to make a few calls about that person to people not listed as references, and to see if there are jobs not listed on the person’s resume you’re holding?
In the world of due diligence, the most damaging fake news can come from omission — the information that is never written. Our challenge is to find it.