Was there a recent time when communicators had a more confusing ecosystem in which to tell stories? US-based PR pros are working in a climate that includes political fragmentation, a year-old pandemic mired in those political divisions, an erosion of trust in public and private institutions and a meteoric rise in disinformation.
The country’s political divisions are not new; however, they seem deeper than previously. A segment of the population doesn’t believe the presidential election of 2020 was legitimate. Others concede there’s a new president, but insist the election was stolen. Try crafting narratives in that atmosphere.
Those divisions deepened Jan. 6 as the election drove violence at the Capitol as lawmakers were verifying the election results. Extensive video footage, run often on news networks and available on social media, shows armed rioters breaching security and entering the building.
Still, at least one senator is attempting to dispel describing those who bombarded the Capitol as an “armed” group.
“This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” the senator said during a radio interview Feb. 15. In addition, the lawmaker took the same approach Feb. 23, during the initial congressional hearing about the Jan. 6 violence.
In addition, a well-known TV commentator echoed that belief, saying, “...[C]ontrary to what you’ve been hearing, there’s no evidence this was a, quote, armed insurrection.”
We cite these political examples as illustrations of the difficult atmosphere that PR pros find themselves as they work to craft narratives.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, it’s clear politics bled into this defining moment. Communication, of course, played a central role.
Recall, for example, the initial communication from several of the country’s political leaders, dubbing the virus a hoax.
Later, some political leaders said the virus was under control. The virus, they argued, was a small issue that within a short period would be gone. This message resonated with some, including a prominent FL businessman, who last month still claimed the virus is a hoax. His business is free of masks.
Those messages and others led to injecting politics into science around aspects of the virus. Social distancing and mask-wearing were embraced or attacked for political reasons. That’s still the case, as we saw last weekend. As such, there was little unity in the country’s response to the virus. Some states imposed regulations immediately; others lagged.
The pastiche of political reactions resulted in mixed attitudes toward vaccination.
There’s a 19-point gap between Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party (69 percent) and Republicans and Republican leaners (50 percent) who say they would get vaccinated, according to PEW.
More of a contrast is the 84 percent of Democrats and 43 of Republicans who say the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the U.S. population as a whole.
Speaking of difficult climates for messaging, notice how some commercials during the recent Super Bowl seemed to ignore the pandemic. Few scenes depicted social distancing or mask-wearing, for example.
Disinformation and Trust
Two other elements adding complexity to the country’s climate, and thus the communicator’s working space, are the rapid rise in disinformation and a decline in trust.
The two, of course, are linked. Indeed, the introductory passages of Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer decries “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”
Corporate communicators are operating in the midst of “an epidemic of disinformation,” with more than two of three executives at large global companies concerned about “the weaponization of false information,” says Jim O’Leary, Edelman global corporate practice chair.
Beyond reputation, he says, misinformation can influence a company’s share price, its loyal customer base and even “the safety of some executives and their families.”
Turning to the growth of disinformation, which is the deliberate creation and use of false information, Patrick Hillmann, an Edelman Crisis & Risk EVP, says he’s not seen “anything like this in my 15 years working in [the area of] crisis.”
So, how can communicators operate in what seems an impossible landscape? How should they make plans in such an uncertain world? Do PR pros take the path of some Super Bowl advertisers and ignore the pandemic rather than risk offending those who think it’s overblown? Or should they insist messages mention or allude to the pandemic?
Do they mention the new administration in their content at the risk of alienating audience members who consider the Biden-Harris team illegitimate?
Adapt or not?
Companies that fail to adapt their messages seem “blind,” says Amy Rosenberg, founder of Veracity and author of “A Modern Guide to Public Relations.”
“Simply using visuals depicting the basics, such as keeping physical distance or interacting on Zoom,” Rosenberg says, “are non-controversial ways for companies to show they are paying attention and evolving with the times.”
Clearly this was not how dozens of Super Bowl advertisers saw things.
Some argue the Super Bowl example harkens to the PR principle of ‘know your audience.’ The Super Bowl is an escape, these brands say, and not the moment to remind viewers about the pandemic.
Rosenberg agrees with the sentiment that “we just can’t watch coronavirus ads anymore.” In addition, she admits the Super Bowl is a respite from the doom and gloom. Still, “a happy medium would remain sensitive to what’s truly going on,” she says.
For instance, Bud Light and Anheuser-Busch commercials showed “either hordes of people closely standing together or groups of socializing friends,” she says. “If the idea was to inspire a light-hearted sense of hope, how does seeing a group of friends together help audiences who are stuck home alone during what used to be a very social time?”
Lean on your Values
Communicators who rely on their company’s core values and goals when crafting messages will find it easier to navigate this charged environment, several PR pros say.
Wendy Roundtree, founder, Jarel Communications, says company leaders must determine the identity they want their company to have and base their communication and actions on that.
For example, does your company value diversity or is it just getting started on that conversation? Communication should reflect where you are as a company, she says.
With goals and values as a brand filter, Roundtree adds, communicators will have a better sense of how to create content. Values and goals, she says, guide content creation just as they provide guard rails for other parts of a company.
For instance, the values of a company determine the kind of business it accepts and how it treats employees.
Values and Synergies
Taking this one step further, tying a company’s ethos into political or social justice issues can create stronger brand loyalty among fans, Rosenberg says.
Certainly companies may be afraid this tactic will alienate portions of their audiences. “But if they take the time to understand their values, which could easily stem from culture or mission, along with more deeply understanding their customers, they may find comforting synergies,” Rosenberg argues.
However, companies that don’t yet have a firm handle on who they or their customers are should pause, Rosenberg advises. “As long as the pause is used for preparation and not avoidance of all issues, taking the time for research can create a future guide map for participating in hot topics with more confidence,” she adds.
An example comes from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Faced with incoming media queries at the outset of the pandemic, media relations director Marvin Stockwell said the organization took a pause for research. Once more information was available about the coronavirus and how it related to St. Jude’s’ core values, the media relations team felt more comfortable accepting media interviews on behalf of its doctors and researchers.
In addition, companies get into trouble at this moment when a leader takes a position on a social or political issue “based on his personal values instead of the company’s core values,” says Jessica Nunez, president and founder, TruePoint Communications.
One of the tactics Nunez uses to guide companies is asking corporate leaders: ‘What are you doing, based on your company’s core values, to build a relationship with your stakeholders?’
Nunez and Rosenberg agree that an element successful companies share is to be purpose-led. “They care about more than the traditional buy-sell transaction with customers,” Nunez says. “They care about the community as a whole.” Brands that convey they have values, she says, will gain consumers’ loyalty. Based on how society is moving, Nunez says, “We’re going to see [purpose-driven companies succeeding] more in 2021.”
An example, Rosenberg says, comes from companies that found out that staying silent on issues such as #BLM can be viewed as worse than voicing opinions or simple support for others, “even if everyone doesn’t agree.” #BLM, she says, “caused the general public to pay close attention to which companies said what and which companies said nothing at all.”
Edelman Applying Transparency to Quell Disinformation
At our press time, Edelman unveiled Disinformation Shield, an effort that combats disinformation holistically. It emphasizes early detection and includes corporate reputation and crisis specialists, predictive intelligence experts, behavioral scientists and psychometric analysts.
Monitoring conversations, including those on the dark web, before disinformation reaches users’ inbox allows combatants to ‘inoculate’ consumers. The ‘vaccine’ informs consumers why a disinformation campaign started, its goals and plan of attack, says Edelman EVP Patrick Hillmann.
Science argues that once consumers are wise to a disinformation effort’s playbook, they are more likely to avoid its narrative, Hillmann tells us. In 3-4 years, nearly every company will augment their monitoring protocols to deal with disinformation, he predicts. Hillmann’s remarks were edited for space.
PRNEWS: Disinformation seems overwhelming.
Patrick Hillmann: In some ways it’s like a hydra. Once you cut off one head, multiple others sprout from it.
PRNEWS: So, what’s the response?
Hillmann: You have to have a set of tools and strategies as flexible and as inventive as those you seek to undo.
First, the tools the actors use to launch these campaigns are fairly rudimentary and cheap, but they work in the dark corners of the web.
People think of QAnon as a bunch of wackos online spouting theory…actually, they think through [disinformation campaigns], workshop potential narratives and decide, ‘Who is most likely to help us spread this narrative?’
Current tools on the market used for traditional social media [monitoring] allow us to track these conversations, but on a skin-deep level only. Disinformation actors are working on these campaigns weeks in advance, and are on sites such as InCode and 4chan and subreddits
When you’re able to track these conversations early on, you not only get an early warning of what sorts of campaigns they’re planning, but who they are targeting and what their motive is.
PRNEWS: So, speed is very important.
Hillmann: Yes. Looking at the behavioral science of this…we find that by the time disinformation hits peoples’ news feeds it’s too late.
Hillmann: People are likely to believe an element of a conspiracy theory once they hear [or see] it.
PRNEWS: So, traditional fact-checking on social has its limits. Finding conversations on the dark web before their disinformation-product reaches our inbox is key.
Hillmann: Yes. Then, when they’re found, you tap the behavioral science community...to dig in and figure out the likely paths of spread.
Once we know what their plan is, what their motivation is and the users they will attack, you can harness predictive analytics and AI to actually get ‘inoculating information’ into stakeholders’ hands before they are served disinformation.
PRNEWS: What’s the inoculating information?
Hillmann: The science shows that if people understand why disinformation is being formulated and that it’s on its way to them, there’s a good chance you can build up a tolerance.
Once people understand why this information is out there and why they are targeted, they are less likely to believe it. Hopefully, in the long term, they are less susceptible to disinformation. Period.
PRNEWS: Give us an example, please.
Hillmann: You have groups watering down the belief that vaccines are an effective way of preventing COVID-19 transmission or that vaccines are dangerous. Some want to do this to diminish the value of American vaccine products, because they have a competing product.
One route they might take is that they target a group of parents of kids with allergies. Of that group, some already mistrust products from big pharma.
So bad actors think, ‘What sort of narrative can we bring together to convince this group?’ They’ll say, perhaps, that Norwegian scientists have discovered that the AstraZenica vaccine causes high rates of death in children with allergies. Then they’ll workshop it…and will begin to share it with a small, but very passionate, network of people who already are tracking allergy issues.
When you hear information that confirms a bias you already have, you’re much more likely to believe it. So, if you think large companies are making products that ignore the risks for people with allergies, you’re more likely to believe the disinformation about AstraZenica.
PRNEWS: What’s next?
Hillmann: Those communities will share the information internally. And the threat actors will use bots to make the information look highly engaged. They’re creating fake news web sites to back up the false claims and starting to post on Twitter to make it look like it’s a large group raising these concerns. Then, we’ll start to see influencers who are legitimately concerned about allergies. They will start sharing this disinformation with their followers, friends, family.
PRNEWS: Before this happens you want to intervene.
Hillmann: Right. So, when we’re able to know the [targeted] stakeholders, we can share interventive messages, either via earned media, even paid media, posting on message boards. You let them know that there’s a group launching an effort targeting them with untrue information. By casting transparency on the motivations of these threat actors, it is much less likely the targeted group will take the disinformation and carry it into the broader social media. This blunts the scope and impact of that disinformation campaign.
Keep in mind those who’ve received this interventive messaging have a more educated approach to what is real and what is fake. They’ve had the curtain pulled back.
They understand there are actors who aggressively are trying to manipulate them…so, hopefully...if we are able to warn them, consumers eventually will begin to be more discerning about information and understand the sophisticated tools and techniques behind disinformation.
PRNEWS: That would be great, of course. When will we see this in a big way?
Hillmann: We have to be realistic...it’s not going to happen overnight, but in bringing these tools to the private sector we hope companies will be able to do their part. This is without a doubt the greatest threat that has faced the concept of trust, at least within a generation.
PRNEWS: Can you point to someone or something that prompted the surge in disinformation?
Hillmann: We do disinformation a disservice to pinpoint a moment in time or an actor who brought this on. The reality is this has been happening underneath our noses for probably a decade.