This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

I am frequently asked about social media in the context of some of the more unsavoury phenomena of our age. Such as the rise of assorted populist movements. Or the pseudo-science peddled by some activists, from climate change deniers to the anti-GMO brigade.

Countless items of disinformation disseminated by such people, and their zealous supporters, are seen (and believed) by millions. Some are rebutted, others not; but frankly, once a story is in the open, rebuttals are often drowned out, however fervently the aggrieved parties seek to stand their ground. Some people still insist that Hillary Clinton runs a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. Need I say more.

Many quite reasonably ask what on earth we can do about it all. With the (mostly) reputable gatekeepers of old (i.e. traditional media) side-lined, how can we stem the flow of nonsense? Mechanical fixes are touted. Like insisting that Google and Facebook better filter their platforms. Or that they block the financial incentives that encourage people to set up and feed fake news sites (e.g. impeding the likes of the famed Macedonian teenagers that set up fake news sites to generate ad revenue during the US presidential campaign). Facebook in particular has faced scrutiny over the unsavoury ads its platform shows people likely to appreciate that type of thing, and are being called on to make it harder for crazies to advertise.

But whatever fixes are put in place, nonsense will still likely proliferate, as long as audiences are eager to consume it in the first place.

There are two takes on this that are essential:

  1. By scapegoating the internet and looking for quick technical fixes, we ignore the root causes of populism and the triggers that encourage people to disseminate nonsense.
  2. A more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot achieve might actually be quite helpful.

I am by no stretch of the imagination diminishing the perils of fake information disseminated over the internet. It is a very bad thing indeed. When believed, fake news can convince people on the fence to move to the dark side. And even when not, it contributes to the general sense of rift and disillusionment we face in our public/political arena.

But scapegoating the internet, along with populist politicians (however reprehensible) and the supposedly dumb people who vote for them is far too easy.

Many of the so-called elites – politicians of the non-populist sort, media, and corporates – are the root of their own plight. They have behaved in a manner that has drained public trust and fuelled the populist machine. Expressed differently: they have done more damage to themselves than populists, fake news, demented activists et al – and indeed, have allowed fake information to be plausible in the first place.

The response by the political establishment since the 2007-08 crash has for the most part been grossly insensitive, making it too easy to make the case that elites in ivory towers are the enemy of the common man or woman whose wages have stagnated, or have lost jobs and homes (and presumably plenty of self-respect). In parallel, modern day corporate scandals like Dieselgate, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires have hardly helped.

Meanwhile, corporations that are targeted by activists peddling pseudo-science, fail to see that in many cases they are targeted because they are easy prey. Organisations that are honest, transparent, and generally good corporate citizens are targeted far less forcefully. The starting point of the victims of pseudo-science, and other illegitimate activist claims, should be ‘how can we first behave, and then secondly, communicate better’; and not ‘pseudo-science and the internet are the sole triggers of all that is wrong in the world.’

Which brings us to the second point, that of a potential silver lining, brought about by a more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot do. For years, far too many of us believed the internet was the second coming, and would bring about prosperity and world peace for all. Quite literally. Think back to 2011, when many claimed that social media alone was responsible for the Arab Spring and the ensuing loveliness and chorus of group hugs it would produce. Seems so long ago now.

Given events of the last few years, belief in what Evgeny Morozov calls cyber-utopianism – the failure to see the internet’s undesirable side, and believing it to be purely a force for good – has faded. And this is a good thing. It means most of us (hopefully) have a more sober and realistic view of what the internet can achieve. In public affairs and communications terms, this might involve assessing and mitigating risk before we engage in online communications. Or adopting a level-headed integrated strategy that sees digital and social media as a set of useful channels amongst many, rather than insisting on digital first.

Moreover, might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of person or organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saints, so genuinely behaving well is a far more precious asset than slick spokespeople and pretty communications material.

I live in hope.

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This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

When utilising digital to support their programmes, corporate public affairs practitioners often fixate on how it can help deliver information at high speed and volumes. Understandably. Reaching policy folk is a challenge, so the notion of doing it at the click of a button is tantalising.

But it is important to first look beyond information delivery and consider the risks posed by digital, especially its celebrated progeny: social media.

Due to mistrust in elites and shifting societal values, corporations are expected to be paradigms of virtue. If they are not, social media is at hand to let citizens and activists express their discontentment. Moreover, a story can no longer be ‘killed’ given that social media means we have one perpetual news cycle. If a story is big enough, it will keep on running through likes and shares, and be amplified through petitions and campaigns. Social media does not even respect geographic boundaries, with salacious hearsay from a far-away continent likely breaking faster than a less juicy local story.

In public affairs, this all matters because it is now easier for opponents and activists to leverage corporate misdeeds from across the world (real or perceived) to gain political advantage.

Many argue that we should take protest in the digital age with an enormous pinch of salt given how easy it is to express indignation on Facebook or sign multiple petitions (the slacktivist phenomenon). But sometimes online protest does balloon, and with decision-makers eager to convey democratic legitimacy by following the tide of public opinion (and, one would hope, wishing to do the right thing), such protest can sway policy.

The most oft-quoted recent EU examples are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the much-vaunted trade deal between the EU and the US, and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights.

I shall not enter into the merits of either package, but merely say that while both had seemed shoe-ins at the offset, they were derailed by large scale protests which would not have escalated so fast and attracted such numbers were it not for online mobilisation and petitions (Avaaz petitions against TTIP and ACTA were signed by 3.5 and 3 million people respectively).

What to do about it all? Beyond being virtuous corporate citizens, being better equipped to handle the risks posed by the spread of potentially perilous information online is the obvious starting point. This involves a melange of operational and cultural remedies which we shall scratch the surface of here:

  • Public affairs should work closely with counterparts globally – EU functions tend to be quite isolated – and with marketing-communications (not just legal, as is frequently the case). Working with marketing-communications – the main brand and reputation ‘owners’ – will ensure alignment and joint plans on reputation-building (proactive), and the ability to act quickly when trouble arises (reactive).
  • Organisations should make crisis mitigation global and cross-functional. Issue monitoring, scenario planning, and messaging should be shared. In practice, this should help public affairs professionals keep track of events outside their backyard which could affect policy. And vice-versa: knowledge of policy developments which could affect broader reputation will help corporate communicators.
  • Organisations should strive to institute greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and advocacy activities (on and offline).

Many public affairs practitioners who utilise digital and social media to enhance reach and impact, will at some point ask a variation of this question: “this isn’t working well enough – what should I do better?”

Three handy starting points:

  1. Audience first: I come across countless organisations that invest heavily in digital public affairs, but do not know how their audiences wish to consume information. Simple vs. complex? Offline vs. online? If online: social media vs. long-form? Text vs. audio-visual? Determining what is most useful to audiences, ideally by talking to them, and when considering online channels, examining how they currently use them, is the indisputable starting point.
  2. Don’t waste your time: “audience first” leads neatly onto “don’t waste your time”. I’m frequently asked what online channel someone should be on, what tactics work best, or how frequently they should be publishing. I don’t know. Maybe they shouldn’t be on any channels? Maybe they have an audience of 10 and have them all on speed-dial? Every single communications activity (every tweet, speech, press release, meeting) should fulfil a specific audience need, tied to a specific If it doesn’t tick both boxes – then don’t waste your time; focus purely on activities you know bring results.
  3. Understand best in class: within any given sector or issue, someone has probably sussed out what key audiences require, and is communicating effectively. You’ll usually know who. Analyse them in detail: what do they say, how they say it, who says it, where, how often, and in what tone. We don’t benchmark nearly enough. We should: online communications is largely public, meaning best practice is there for all to see.

Plenty has been written about post truth, fake news, alternative facts et al. And it’s bleak. For good reason: while fake news alone cannot be blamed for the election of crazies and other alarming events, it does debase trust and delegitimise traditional figures of authority (think “experts”). Once citizens begin to believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, the crazies get to present themselves as peers or respectable alternatives, with all the scary ramifications that carries.

For communications professionals, fake news carries particular challenges. The organisations we represent may become victims of fake news. The thought of a carefully crafted, fact-based storyline, being discredited by a spate of bogus news stories, keeps many talented PR pros awake at night. Moreover, in a world of discredited experts and media, how does one build credibility if no one is credible in the eyes of a disillusioned public?

None of this is helped by the behaviours of members of the so-called elite. Modern day corporate scandals from Enron to VW, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires, arguably do far more damage than fake news (and allow fake news to be plausible in the first place).

Even the communications profession itself appears to have given up on truth. The UK Vote Leave Campaign was celebrated by PR Week, despite the many absurd inaccuracies it presented as fact last year. Just a month later, a Swedish campaign about the merits of eating organic food, won the top PR gong at Cannes Lions despite using highly questionable data.

BUT while not at all questioning the perils of fake news, might the doom and gloom be overblown? Is the scale of fake new exaggerated a tad, for instance? It involves subject matter on which people have strong opinions. Granted, that covers a lot of ground, and debates around politics, migration, trade, climate change and so forth are likely to be tarnished by fake news. But surely most topics, and channels, remain uncontroversial? Most (not all) of the communications work I advise my clients on is hardly going to make Russia Today or Breitbart’s hit-list in the morning.

And are we exaggerating the gullibility of those exposed to it? While the scale and prominence of fake news has never been so great, it is not a novelty. Think of the doctors sponsored by tobacco companies arguing that Brand X cigarettes were great for digestion through to anti-everything activists peddling pseudo-science today. Each wave has helped to make people’s bullshit gauges more effective. How many people’s views are nowadays truly shifted due to fake news? Is it not arguably consumed more by people who like that it cements their own world view? Is fake news, and people’s ignorance and credulity in relation to it, not just a handy scapegoat?

Which brings us to a potential silver lining. Corporate and media misdeeds are the main root of mistrust; fake news merely reinforces it (read Robert Philips for a longer and better take on this here). Might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saintly organisations. Activists have for years attacked certain banks, agrichemical and oil companies more than others because they are poor corporate citizens, making their attacks more credible. Genuinely behaving well (not just having slick spokespeople and pretty communications material) is a precious long-term investment, against fake news and much else.

There is also a potential communications upside (again, very spurious and with plenty of caveats). Might the diffusion of fake news represent an opportunity for some organisations to enhance reputations (and even build new revenue streams) by becoming purveyors of high quality information? Many people are appalled by the fake news phenomenon. With BS sensors on high alert, they are less likely to trust little-known news sources, bloggers or citizen journalists. Recognisable and trusted organisations could help fill the information gap through high-quality content provision if they play their hand right (read/listen to more on this phenomenon by the clever chaps at CMI here and here).

Again, there are enormous caveats: in our age of elite mistrust, organisations with less than stellar reputations, a poor record of corporate citizenship, or who patently engage in spin rather than honest and authentic communications, will not succeed. And information needs to be high quality, credible, informative, useful and/or entertaining. But those who tick the many boxes and can become trusted, high-quality sources, may well (perversely?) benefit from the fake new phenomenon.

I’ve recently written about different communications requirements (digital and other) on technical vs. politicised public affairs dossiers here and here.

On the same subject, here is a table that outlines, in basic terms, different viable strategies and digital methods that are most likely to be utilised on technical vs. political issues in EU public affairs. In summary: digital remains relevant on technical dossiers, but on a more discreet level and with fewer tactical options. NB: clearly, items in either column could quite easily also fit in the other, depending on issue, stakeholders and environment. Food for thought, I hope.

digital-pa-tech-vs-political

Evaluation of communications activity tends to centre on external reach and impact, measuring basics like awareness, and ideally outcome related metrics like shifts in opinion of target audiences as well as genuine impact on communications, policy and business objectives.

A further useful form of evaluation which we often neglect is internal, revolving around questions like:

  • What should we actually be evaluating from an internal perspective?
  • What constitutes best practice (and poor practice?)
  • How are we performing?

The (hopefully visible) table below lists five core components of digital public affairs along with a short description of what constitutes basic, good and great for each, which I’ve used as a benchmark to assess activity.

I’ve arguably been conservative: some public affairs and communications professionals will likely think that some items in good or great should be considered basic in 2016. Perhaps, but I’d argue that given the cultures inherent in most public affairs functions – technical/legalistic and government-relations centric, and operated by policy wonks rather than marketing-communications professionals – I think it’s realistic. Happy to hear thoughts, as ever.

Digital PA grid

I recently wrote about the nuance between technical/legal and public interest driven dossiers in EU public affairs. In short, high-quality technical information provision is the key determinant for success on technical dossiers, while on politicised issues in which public sentiment plays a role, a successful PA programme will likely need to include more of the marketing-communications toolkit.

This same nuance affects the use of digital and social media in public affairs. On communications-driven dossiers, strategies will frequently have considerable digital components. Run-of-the-mill examples might include:

  • An online-centred rebuttal programme when a public affairs goal is being hampered by a specific item of misinformation.
  • Leveraging public support from a specific constituency – people who live in a certain place, work for an affected company or industry, or have a certain set of values – with the help of online tactics like petitions and social networks.
  • Utilising digital storytelling techniques to raise awareness amongst diverse stakeholders in a cluttered information space.

In legal-technical public affairs activity, like tracking and analysing ramifications of policy or drafting and advising on policy-related texts, such strategies may seem irrelevant. And in all honesty they often are, at least on a large scale.

But by no stretch does that make digital channels as a whole irrelevant, as they remain viable tools across three core components of all public affairs activity:

  1. Intelligence tracking and analysis

While the use of data in public affairs remains rudimentary, quick wins may be found in areas such as proof point identification (e.g. what do people in a key decision-maker’s constituency think of your issue and can this be leveraged) and analysing the opinions, habits and communications preferences of targeted decision-makers active on social media.

  1. Message delivery

Providing policy-related information online is obviously key. Even on the most procedural of topics involving limited stakeholders, information will be sought online. Meanwhile, highly targeted digital marketing methods can help get relevant content to the narrowest of audiences.

  1. Relationship-building

Last but not least, if target decision-makers are engaged in social media, it presents an alternative channel for reach and influence. There are only so many meetings one can attend.

The use of digital and social as one minor cog in technical/legal-centred public affairs programme may seem unexciting and perhaps even irrelevant. Undoubtedly, the options available when campaigning to influence a wider set of influencers will appear more enticing to most communications professionals. But don’t underestimate the value that digital and social can provide in shifting the pin even on under-the-radar PA, be it through a piece of intelligence uncovered online, first-rate content, or because of reputational capital and relationships built up over time in part via social media.