When Ikea was today forced to deny it was selling a table in the shape of a Nazi swastika, called the Hadølf, it brought into sharp focus how social media ‘humour’ can have real impact on brands.

From an original hoax which claimed the item was on sale in Italy, the doctored image of an existing table was shared by millions on social media around the world.

Eventually a German newspaper asked Ikea whether the table really exists. Of course it doesn’t. (A further clue was in the claim that it retails at 88 Euros … ‘88’ being commonly used to denote the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.)

You’d like to think that the reaction of any journalist with integrity would be to take a cursory look at the image, know that it was nothing more than internet humour and then consign the whole thing to the dustbin – not pick up the phone to Ikea and ask whether it actually was selling tables commemorating Hitler.

But this represents an example of the way some of the less-scrupulous Press now works: make up a story that the journalist, for whatever reason, wishes were true, then force the subject of the story to issue an official denial. Hey presto, a ready-made story which allows the title to reprint its original lie and name the subject of it, while covering itself by reporting the denial. (The award-winning author Nick Davies is brilliant on what he calls ‘Flat Earth News’)

And so it was that Ikea was forced into issuing a public statement denying what everyone knew was a hoax anyway. Denial then became a story in itself, giving the so-called respectable media the chance to pile onto the story, while being careful to point out that they, of course, knew all along it was a fake.

‘Ikea forced to deny…’ becomes the headline, which takes the original hoax from its origins as a daft bit of photo editing to a topic on the world’s ‘respectable’ news agenda. Ikea is manipulated into a position where it has no option but to associate its name publicly with a clear hoax. And so the story of ‘Ikea and the Swastika table’ becomes lodged in the collective brain – even though there was never a single grain of truth to it.

Funny? Arguably. Something more sinister? Potentially. Who’s to say that the doctored image wasn’t created maliciously by an unscrupulous competitor?

Particularly in the age of social media memes lampooning pretty much anything and everything, brands are exceptionally vulnerable to this type of tactic. When supermarket packaging is photo-edited to change words to something crude, people see it on a social media post and often assume it to be true. Either way, the brand suffers.

So how can effective PR help a brand which is subject to this type of tactic?

This manner of story almost always originates on social media, so be vigilant for mentions. Brands often fail here as even though they are on social media, they don’t devote the necessary resources needed to monitor such a fluid, fast-moving stream of information. It’s a false economy because often, interceding as soon as a post of this type is spotted can kill a story before it grows legs.

If a post uses gentle humour, then responding in kind is often appreciated by the social media audience. For something more damaging, or malicious, it may be necessary to take more stringent measures but the principle remains the same: stop it before it gets out of hand.

To talk to us about effective reputation management, and how you can protect your brand online and in the media, contact The Tonic Communications.