On the evening of November 30, celebrity and entertainment news site TMZ released a report: “Paul Walker Dies in Fiery Car Crash.” The star of the Fast and the Furious movies, the site reported, had been riding with a friend in Santa Clarita, when the driver lost control of the car and crashed into a tree.
The story immediately spread like wildfire across social media. But of the people sharing and commenting on it, many had the same question: “Is this a hoax?” And even as other sites started reporting the story as well, many people maintained their doubts about its veracity, until it was finally confirmed on Mr. Walker’s own official Facebook and Twitter pages.
The story is tragic, to be sure. But it raises an interesting question: Why were people so hesitant to believe the reports? Shock, perhaps, that it could happen so suddenly and unexpectedly. But there’s another reason as well. The story was broken by TMZ. They’re known for reporting gossip and rumors. Who was seen with whom outside what club, and did they look fat? People tend to take their stories with a grain of salt. But a celebrity death is real news. How could they be the first ones to get such an important scoop?
If the report had come from, say, CNN.com instead, it’s likely people would have believed it more readily. They’re one of the most trusted news sources in the country, after all. But in fact, they’ve posted a few death reports themselves that turned out to be false. There’s even something called “The CNN.com Incident,” wherein they inadvertently released a whole series of pre-written memorials for celebrities who were still living.
And yet, they remain a trusted and respected news source. We take it on faith that, despite the occasional misstep, we can trust what CNN tells us. But TMZ, many people write off as a joke. Why? Branding. The facts being reported on are secondary to the brand that’s telling us.
The Paul Walker tragedy provides us with even further proof of this. While the story was being circulated, and people were on the lookout for reports of it being a hoax, the website MediaMass issued just such a report. That report also circulated immediately across social media, with comments to the effect of, “Calm down, guys, he’s not really dead, see?”
But the hoax report was itself a hoax. In fact, the MediaMass site is a satirical publication, fabricating rumors of death, engagement, pregnancy, and more for a plethora of celebrities. But those unfamiliar with the site and its practices were more than eager to take the story as truth and pass it on. The site’s branding makes it look, at first glance, like a legitimate news source. So a number of people (as well as other news sources) preferred to trust this unknown site over TMZ, simply by virtue of the branding of each. This constitutes a failure on the part of both sites, since neither’s story was ultimately able to do what it was supposed to do.
So in light of all of this, you have a very important question to ask yourself: What does your brand say about you? Your brand has your reputation inextricably attached to it. Does your audience trust what you have to tell them, or will they go searching the Web for someone other source, to confirm or deny it? The best brands need little more than just their name, to tell you everything you need to know.