Zach Olsen authors “Crisis communication in a post-truth world" for Communication World Magazine.
For those of us in the communications business, 2016 will be remembered as the year our line of work got a lot more complicated.
It was the year that “post-truth” earned word-of-the-year honors by Oxford Dictionaries; that fake news took center stage in the U.S. presidential election; and that the public’s distrust of the media reached new and unprecedented depths.
It was also the year that laid bare the echo chambers and information bubbles fostered by social media networks.
No longer do consumers need to search for distorted or false information. It’s served to them through their social media feeds by a growing number of “publishers” — today that means anyone with a smartphone or laptop — who are disseminating information meant to deceive or to attract clicks with no regard to accuracy.
For communications professionals, this new post-truth reality requires fresh thinking about crisis communications, and acceptance that the facts of a situation don’t necessarily matter as much as how consumers and investors feel about it and whether they choose to believe it and share.
“The Official Shoe of White People”
Recently, New Balance found itself in an untenable situation after a misinterpreted statement spun out of control on social media.
In the days after the election, a New Balance spokesperson made comments to a Wall Street Journal reporter that the company agreed with President-elect Donald Trump’s position opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). New Balance, one of the few major shoe companies to manufacture in the U.S., has long viewed the massive trade deal as a threat to its bottom line.
The WSJ reporter’s tweet quoted New Balance as saying, “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly w/ Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” but made no mention of TPP.
It was soon re-tweeted nearly a thousand times, with Trump opponents calling for boycotts of the brand. Videos of New Balance shoes going up in flames or shredded into pieces went viral, and then a white supremacy group seized the moment and declared the shoe brand the “official shoe of white people.”
New Balance was caught off-guard and horrified — it hadn’t endorsed a candidate at all, much less a racist creed. The company issued several statements renouncing the white supremacists’ endorsement, but is still trying to counter the false perceptions sparked by the original tweet.
Post-Truth Crisis Communications
Once upon a time, in reaction to a scandal, it was common practice to put out a statement and wait for the problem to blow over.
Those days are gone.
The New Balance story is not unique. Today, a scandal can spin out of control quickly. Here are some tips to help companies facing similar woes:
Assess your foe. Not every yahoo with an IP address matters. Companies cannot and should not devote their time, energy and resources to combating every single negative thing said about them on the internet. A thick skin goes a long way in the post-truth world.
Don’t let it linger. If the situation escalates and requires action, the longer a controversy is left unchallenged, the more likely it will spread unchecked. Be prepared to move quickly and address the issue head-on. Even if you don’t have all the facts, it’s important to keep your clients, employees and investors abreast of what’s going on.
Know what you don’t know. Quickly figure out what your weak points are, and what information you need to reassure stakeholders that you’ve got the situation under control. This may be the time to hammer out a narrative and give your account of what happened. It is also the time to assess your company’s capability to handle a potential onslaught of comments and inquiries. If you need to hire outside help, do.
Create a roadmap. An action plan is key to surviving a crisis of significant magnitude. A comprehensive strategy will make sure all your bases are covered, and ensure you can respond to whatever come up.
Knowledge is power. Comprehensive monitoring is key. From Reddit boards to Twitter, know where the lies are spreading and you can more quickly work to dismantle them.
Exhale. One benefit of this post-truth world is that controversies can pass quickly. What was raging one week can be forgotten the next. The key is to respond quickly, shut down false narratives, and be diligent about communicating the narrative that you want to have remembered.
“Right now, it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful,” Dartmouth researcher Brendan Nyhan recently told The Economist. Many in the communications business are working hard to understand and embrace this new reality while simultaneously mourning the de-evolution of the value of truth.
While there is much to mourn, I see no reason for despair. Social media platforms and Google are looking at how to address fake news, and recent reports of a fake news detector plug-in are of interest. Professionals who stay abreast of these developments and adopt new tools quickly will be more successful in managing crisis scenarios.
Overall, communicators will adapt and evolve as they have in the past. In the meantime, the industry as a whole (PR professionals as well as journalists and social media platforms) must, together, innovate and advocate for incentives to cease the spread of false information.
Zach Olsen is president of international PR firm Infinite Global. Based in San Francisco, Zach provides counsel to corporations, universities, law firms and other businesses involved in high-stakes litigation and crisis scenarios.