“Fake News” and the Issues at Kay Jewelers

We’re in a new world, where even false charges can gain currency

Right now, the big debate in journalism is over “fake news”—articles, often shared on social media, that are in many cases completely false. According to Buzzfeed, the top-performing fake election-related news stories got more traction on Facebook than stories from major news organizations. Sometimes these articles are put out by people who know they are false but don’t care. But as we have seen with the unlucky pizza place that was falsely accused of child sex trafficking, once a story is out there, it can be hard to reel back.

Earlier this year, Kay Jewelers had a similar issue. There had been a few purported incidents of customers having their diamonds switched for moissanite at Kay, as well as some botched repairs. Given the volume Kay does, these things happen. But the press picked up on the stories, likely guided by short sellers who hunted for complaints posted on Facebook. Eventually, this led to overblown headlines like “Kay Jewelers Accused of Diamond Switching.” The resulting bad publicity hurt the company’s stock and perhaps sales.

Many of these articles about Kay can’t technically be called “fake news”; they appeared in mainstream publications and contain actual allegations, though they are just that, allegations. The problem is not necessarily the content of the articles but what they implied. They made it seem that everyone who goes to Kay will get their stone switched.

Of course, the idea that stone-switching—a felony in many areas—happens regularly at Signet, or that the company allows or encourages it, is ridiculous. Certainly, everyone in the trade thinks so.

But that’s the problem. When these allegations arose, many of us assumed that logic would prevail, that many would understand that a billion-dollar retailer would never condone or allow an illegal activity. But the consumers’ frame of reference is not ours.

Which brings me to the response from Signet:

We strongly object to recent allegations on social media, republished and grossly amplified, that our team members systematically mishandle customers’ jewelry repairs or engage in “diamond swapping.” Incidents of misconduct, which are exceedingly rare, are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

Some damage-control experts considered that response inadequate. Consumers didn’t want blanket assurances of Signet’s integrity, even if they are true; they had just read the consumers’ sob stories and wanted to know what was being done about them. They wanted a company that would show concern, not take umbrage. They also wanted an authentic, rather than corporate, voice to speak to them.

I’m not trying to rehash an unpleasant episode or pick on Signet; the company was placed in a tough situation by people with an agenda. Eventually, CEO Mark Light went on TV to address the allegations, and—perhaps his best move—visited the consumer in Maryland who claimed her stone was switched. That showed caring and understanding. We in the trade may know that Mark Light wants all his customers to be happy. But consumers don’t. And visiting the consumer not only paid lip service to that concept, it demonstrated it.

The diamond business faces similar issues. Many consumers—including reporters!—believe the industry is still controlled by a cartel, and that all diamonds are mined by slaves. In the industry, we know this isn’t true. But consumers won’t know this unless we tell them—and even then, it can be difficult for the truth to get out.

In today’s social media world, communicating effectively means not just delivering a message. It means understanding the audience you are communicating to, knowing the (sometimes false or exaggerated) communications they have been exposed to, and realizing that their frame of reference may be very different from yours. It’s much trickier, and sometimes frustrating, as it means countering charges that are often absurd. But the Internet has splintered us into many different frames of reference. And the trick is finding a way to navigate them.

JCK News Director