Crisis management in a “post-truth” world

December 13, 2016 Alistair Nicholas 0 Comments

A few weeks ago Oxford Dictionaries announced that its word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”. This got me thinking about the implications for crisis management: How do you communicate your side of the story during a crisis that threatens your business in a “post-truth” world?

The truth behind the post-truth phenomenon

If Oxford’s choice of word wasn’t astonishing enough, it was the first time that the US and UK editions of the Oxford had selected the same word of the year. The head of the American dictionary, Katherine Connor Martin, said the word “encapsulated a trans-Atlantic phenomenon”.

Indeed, one might say post-truth is a global phenomenon.

Post-truth’s popularity (as word of the year) was sealed by some extraordinary events during 2016 that saw the term “post-truth politics” widely used by media and academic commentators. In the UK it was the “Brexit” debate and the vote to leave the European Union. In the US it was the race for the White House that resulted in the victory of Donald Trump.

But the term “post-truth” doesn’t refer to an event after the truth, as one might expect. Rather, it refers to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” according to the Oxford Dictionary definition.

A reasonable question is how did this come about?

The intersect of truth and post-truth – what BuzzFeed found.

What BuzzFeed found - the intersect of truth and post-truth.
What BuzzFeed found – the intersect of truth and post-truth.

A major factor in “post-truth” political commentary has been social media. According to analysis by BuzzFeed – a US-based entertainment, tech and news site – social media sites like Facebook played a major role in the circulation of false stories and “hyperpartisan” commentary during the US election. The false stories originated from hoax websites and politically-alligned blogs. BuzzFeed’s analysis showed that the false and biased stories were shared more widely than stories from traditional news sources, such as the LA Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

The anarchical nature of the Internet means there are no gatekeepers like the researchers, editors and lawyers employed by traditional media outlets to ensure stories are based in truth and won’t lead to lawsuits. While some have suggested that sites like Facebook should fight misinformation rather than amplify it,that is unlikely to happen. Most social media platforms do not see their role as comparable to a news site or that they should become arbiters of facts. Their focus is the sharing of information and entertainment. Nor do most social media platforms have the resources to fact check every post put up by users.

Mark Twain’s adage that a lie will get halfway around the world before the Truth gets its pants on was never truer.

The truth is out there

This makes business’ challenge all the harder.

What can corporations do when they become the victims of a “post-truth attack” on the Internet?

The first thing to do in response is to tell the truth and keep telling it. You cannot protect your business by conceding facts and backing down.

It is of course important to realise that you have detractors and that they have their supporters. They may be environmental or consumer activisits. Or they may be consumers who had a bad experience with your product or your company. But they have an axe to grind and they will use the Internet and social media to do it. And they are unlikely to allow the facts to stand in the way of their stories. You need to accept that; you will never win them over and it is probably not worth the resources to try and do so.

Instead you should focus on your supporters and target those people who may not have formed a view about you and the issue one way or the other.

A smart strategy is to get your supporters out there defending you. If they are your customers their view of you, of how they have engaged with you, is going to carry a lot of weight with the people who haven’t made their minds up on the issue as yet. You need to get your supporters tweeting and posting on Facebook and other social media platforms about their positive experiences of your brand. But this needs to happen naturally, not in some contrived way orchestrated by your corporate communications team. That will be seen through and your authenticity as a brand will suffer.

Rather, your supporters need access to the facts and encouragement.

You should focus on the things you can control – your own website and social media properties. Make sure you are issuing statements to correct errors, misinformation and misreporting. Your supporters will appreciate that you are doing that and they will share it with their friends and followers on social media.

And make sure you are talking to the traditional media. While post-truth might be winning the volume game across social media platforms, traditional media still carries a lot of weight precisely because its professionalism and checks and balances. Traditional media, because of its old school ways, still has credibility and is seen as objective by and large. Make sure no factual error or misreporting on an issue is allowed to slip by; correct it straight away.

Of course, the most important thing is to be prepared well in advance of a crisis hitting. Here are a few things you can do to ensure your organisation is prepared well-ahead of any crisis occurring:

  • Undertake a risk audit and identify your vulnerabilities;
  • Put in place a crisis manual and make sure it addresses your high likelihood-high impact potential crises;
  • Train your media spokerspersons so they are ready to play their role in a crisis;
  • Conduct crisis drills to test your manual, systems, processes and people – you really don’t want to be “trying them out” during a crisis;
  • Ensure you have the systems in place for a fast ramp up of your telephone call centre and social media responders in case of a crisis that will result in a large volume of calls and social media posts;
  • Build relationships with media and other stakeholders that might support you in a crisis.

By Alistair Nicholas*, Executive Vice President – Director, Special Projects

* Alistair leads crisis preparedness projects and crisis drills for Powell Tate Australia’s clients. He has also worked on numerous crises in the US, China, and Australia during his career of more than 30 years.