As the fall-out from the last US election continues to plague the White House, the term “fake news” has now well and truly entered the global lexicon. And far from politics being its sole province, my recent trip to the US reinforced the significance of this phenomenon in the world of professional corporate communications.
We’ve all been grappling with the rise in public and grassroots activism in the corporate reputation space in Australia with the likes of GetUp! and PETA, as well as through the more insidious form of hostile internet trolls. But growing convergence between mainstream media and the social / digital platforms utilised by these groups is opening the way for malicious fake news to drive costly reputation attacks.
Most corporate communications professionals have noted in recent years the surprising rise in factual mainstream news stories sourcing social media content. As one world grows and another struggles, they each present a common concern for the corporate reputation manager. Feeding this sense is the growth in “analysis” articles by a shrinking number of high-profile journalists, which is pushing out traditional factual reporting in mastheads across the western world. Increasingly this content targets specific opinions – as consumers increasingly focus on articles which agree with their world view. In parallel the west has seen a clean out of the middle wage band of reporters and sub-editors, the traditional engine room of mainstream media. The result is a mainstream media with less investment in effective factual reporting, a greater focus on echo chamber analysis and a growing vulnerability to social media.
This trend is being reinforced online with the concentration of opinion and interest groups increasingly accessing online and social media platforms designed for very specific perspectives. Democratisation of media content production and distribution means consumers are receiving news from sources they like, with less allegiance to the more balanced traditional media standards. As the mainstream disassociates from these standards, consumers are increasingly vulnerable to claims their personal views are not being represented, pushing them to ever more concentrated opinion based sources and away from traditional factual reporting. The result of all this? An effective ‘grabby’ message, targeted to the right audience at the right time, regardless of its factual inaccuracy, faces almost none of the traditional barriers we rely on to ensure the integrity of mass media messages. If these messages are destructive, there can often be few options available to the subject of that attack to respond. As every corporate communications practitioner knows only too well, while a positive reputation message must be reinforced over and over again to stick, a negative reputation message can do permanent damage with one effective hit. In the modern era, that hit can be launched and delivered before the target is aware there is even a problem.
My discussions with corporate communications professionals in the US suggests, however that there is still hope for the well-meaning corporate citizen in the face of the modern reputation attack. Provided they can stick to some old, and a couple of new, communications principals.
The first is well known to the emerging group of communications professionals now making a place for themselves in the C-suite – know your audience and engage, engage, engage. Bringing people “inside” the organisation, helping them to understand who and what drives the business, can ensure that the first time a key stakeholder hears about a potentially damaging issue they already have a sense of the business’ approach to that area of its activities. It is true that many stakeholders may not be visible before they engage with an attack, making it difficult to effectively deliver positive message prior to an event. However, using positive engagement to build deep, honest and positive relationships with those key remaining mainstream journalists can be critical both in preventing them from responding badly to fake news, and to enlisting them to help deliver the right messages in response.
The traditional view of some of Australia’s largest companies, to act like the proverbial whale only surfacing to breathe, may no longer be feasible. Without an existing presence in stakeholders’ minds (think BHP’s new “think big” ads), companies are more vulnerable to fake news.
By building a positive relationship with key audiences, communications professionals are also able to better understand and own the information channels that can impact them. This raises the second principal in preparing for a fake news attack - know the battle ground and be nimble. Communications professionals will all know the febrile community group, activist group, troll or issue that got worse before it got better. The task here can be to recognise crazy and use it.
As some have demonstrated in Australia, when an online attack hits, recognising and attracting participants to a contained online space can allow the vitriol to be quarantined. At the same time, being able to monitor and engage with ‘peak crazy’ can allow your team to identify the precise moment public criticism goes too far, revealing attackers to be less than credible. Knowing when this happens can be critical in the contest of integrity, which often determines the ultimate reputational outcome. . These types of nimble engagement techniques can allow the well-prepared combatant to leverage the otherwise harmful asymmetric nature of the conflict.
A third principal for navigating the chaos of a reputation attack is to stay clear on your core purpose and remember that “communications is corporate”. A lot of traffic in the media or online can be terribly exciting and draw the attention of the C-suite, not every attack is going to affect customers, production or share value. A steady hand should always know when an attack is doing real damage and focus on mitigating that damage – responding to chatter for its own sake can often add to the chaos.
Which leads neatly to the oldest and most important factor in managing any reputation attack - be as honest as you can and always remember it’s rarely the mistake that gets you, it’s the response. If something goes wrong and a company determines a substantive response, that should determine public communications from initial crisis to final washup and review. If an attack is completely unrelated to reality, the critical question in the minds of the viewing public will be the integrity of the target business. Setting a clear position early and maintaining it through the crisis cycle is critical to establishing and maintaining that integrity.
Often gaming out and simulating attacks can help with logistical response preparation, in turn buying critical time in a crisis to ensure the first substantive response is the right one. To be effective though, crisis simulation must involve genuine engagement by all relevant decision makers as well as the communications team, because this is often where the system breaks down.
In a majority of cases, a company with public values should be able to explain an issue or incident in those terms, show its commitment to continuous improvement and learning from the event, and explain its logical course of action. If your company is deliberately acting against its values to turn a better profit however, well, that’s a different set of dark arts that will cost you a bit more to reveal!