One of the big stories from the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was the proliferation of “fake news”. Huge numbers of people were fooled into believing that President Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, just two of the many hoaxes originating on fake news sites and spread via social media. Many of these sites were run by teenagers in Macedonia, who saw it as an easy way to earn advertising revenue.
One day each year, some of the biggest corporations, and even legitimate media outlets, are tempted to spread their own fake news. That day, of course, is April 1st.
Often the pranks are undeniably clever: the BBC’s 1957 report about the “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest”; Burger King’s Left-Handed Whopper; and one of my favorites from last year, National Geographic‘s announcement that it would cease publishing nude animal photos.
The good ones can garner enormous publicity, and it’s become a tradition for media outlets to tally the year’s standout pranks. But even in the best of times, some of these jokes backfire. Google, one of the most accomplished corporate pranksters, angered Gmail users with last year’s “Mic Drop” gag, which inserted an animated Minion character into emails and prevented the sender from seeing any replies.
April Fools’ hoaxes are especially dangerous when news organizations fall for the prank. In 2015, Reuters ran, and then withdrew, a headline based on a parody press release from Tesla Motors. Last year, The Washington Post had to retract a story based on a hoax press release that falsely claimed to be from Pfizer. In a 2013 blog post, former Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent warned that reporters are especially vigilant around April 1, and that pranksters could damage their credibility “in the future, April Fools’ Day or not”.
Given the current sensitivities about fake news, it’s clear that communicators should be more careful than ever when considering April Fools’ pranks. But if you can’t resist the temptation, here are a few tips to prevent an egg from landing on your face.
1. Consider the appropriate medium for the prank. They seem to work best on websites or in advertising. But you should avoid them in any communications with journalists. It’s okay to tout your clever April Fools’ stunt in a press release, but don’t ruin your credibility by making the press release part of the joke.
2. Don’t assume that people will know it’s a joke just because of the date. Ideally, it should be so ridiculous that it’s obviously a prank. If not, you should include a disclaimer stating that it’s an April Fools’ joke. If the disclaimer seems to ruin the fun, then it’s probably not a good joke.
3. Consider the consequences if people take the joke seriously. One notorious fail was a Connecticut bank that advertised a $5 fee to see a live teller. A Los Angeles disc jockey caused a furor in 1987 when he announced that area freeways would be closed for repairs during most of the month. Even one of the best all-time pranks, the Taco Liberty Bell, raised hackles among people who thought that the fast-food chain had, indeed, purchased the Liberty Bell.
4. If the joke has the potential to affect any outside organizations or individuals, be sure they’re in on it.
5. Get feedback from disinterested parties. If the prank falls flat with them, it’s probably not worth pursuing. It’s like open-mic night at a comedy club: lots of people think they’re comedians until they get on stage and try telling jokes.
Ethicist Jack Marshall offered some guidelines of his own for would-be pranksters.
I’ll admit that I’ve succumbed to temptation myself. My publication, Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, includes a newsfeed consisting of health-related headlines from various outlets. For several years, I had a tradition of including a few satirical headlines in the April 1st edition. However, I always separated these fake stories from the real ones, and attributed them to their actual sources. When you see the headline, “Government May Restrict Use of Genetically Modified Farmers,” attributed to The Onion on April Fools’ Day, it’s a strong clue that the story isn’t serious.
The intent wasn’t to mislead my readers, but to give them a few chuckles. And I had to peruse lots of Onion stories to find a handful that would work. Even for the writers at “America’s Finest News Source,” creating news that’s fake and funny is a tough job.
Be careful out there this year.