Fake news is not the only threat to truth

In our so-called post-truth society, fake news is a well-recognised danger to democracy and informed public debate. But there is another less well-known risk which threatens to contaminate legitimate issue management, and that’s the rise of the ‘non-fact’.

Unlike lies, hoaxes, propaganda and fake news – which tend to have a relatively limited life, often based on political opportunism – this is about information which is not true but ‘becomes’ a fact and gets embedded into real-life discussion on subjects which genuinely matter. There is no agreed language to define the outcome of this insidious process by which falsehoods ‘become true,’ so I call them non-facts, and they are important to issue management because they get to be accepted as reality.

Drama and repetition are key factors in the longevity of a non-fact, and a good recent example is environmental activists frequently repeating the claim that 500 million plastic straws a day are used in the United States. This appealing number was first proposed in 2011 by nine-year-old Milo Cress on the basis of some phone calls to manufacturers.

While experts have shown the fourth-grader’s estimate to be wildly wrong, it has appeared in some of the world’s leading media outlets and continues to shape debate. Cress, now aged 17, argues that the precise number is less important than the waste. “We use far too many straws than we need to, and really almost any number is higher than it needs to be.”

This is precisely how some non-facts thrive. Not on the basis of truth, but what people think ought to be true. Or as comedian Stephen Colbert defined his satirical concept of truthiness: “Sort of what you want to be true as opposed to what the facts support.”

A classic non-fact is the belief that wind-turbines are a serious danger to passing birds. This is so deeply entrenched that a proposed 52-turbine windfarm at Bald Hills in Victoria was blocked because of supposed threat to the endangered orange-bellied parrot. The decision was later reversed when it was revealed that the actual risk to the little parrots had been calculated at one death every 600-1,000 years. And of course that was before Donald Trump bizarrely tried to claim that noise from wind turbines causes cancer (though that isn’t a non-fact because pretty much no-one believes it).

Real non-facts emerge and persist for a variety of reasons, including lazy journalism, the decline of basic fact-checking and the echo chamber of social media which is then reflected back into mainstream news and commentary. But the two main driving factors are constant repetition and the desire by some group or organisation to promote the non-fact for their own purposes.

For instance, the claim that childhood vaccination causes autism has been comprehensively debunked by medical authorities and the World Health Organisation declared this as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Yet it continues to thrive as a non-fact, driven by anti-vaccination activists, aided by the power of the Internet and by the news media’s misguided pursuit of ‘balance’ and false equivalency.

Such non-facts are a constant challenge for communicators. In the heat of a high-profile issue campaign it is not possible to respond to each and every attack. But fundamental non-facts which undermine the core issues should not be allowed to stand. This means ensuring close and viable relationships with key stakeholders so that personal conversations can contextualise non-facts should they start to take effect.

The process by which non-facts ‘become’ facts has parallels in the process by which trademarks become generics. Companies typically act promptly and firmly – and assign the necessary resources – to prevent their registered trade names from becoming generics. In exactly the same way issue managers and communicators should act promptly and firmly to prevent non-facts from becoming facts and contaminating legitimate debate.

For more detail on the rise and threat of non-facts, see my full essay in Global Media Journal or listen to my interview on ABC Radio National


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Since when has age disqualified issue activism?

Whatever you think of Greta Thunberg and school students around the world marching to protest about climate change, there is an important underlying question: Do young people have a valid voice in important issues of the day?

There were plenty of politicians and others who argued that Thunberg and her followers should be in school. But ‘time off school’ didn’t get mentioned when 15-year-old Coco Gauff was beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon, and only by grinches when 16-year-old Jessica Watson sailed solo around the world.

Apart from her thousands of supporters, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist came in for a barrage of personal abuse, not only for her views and medical condition, but for her temerity at speaking out so young. The message was very clear – what would she know at her age, wait till she grows up and understands the real world, she’s a puppet of agenda-driven adults, and so on.

The tone grew even nastier after she was invited to speak at the United Nations and delivered a scathing and possibly unwise lecture to the adults in the room. Thunberg herself described her approach as “too loud for people to handle.”

However, the strength of reaction from her critics was remarkable. Sky News Commentator Andrew Bolt called it child abuse and wrote: “I hope all those activists, those reckless politicians, who treated this chronically anxious and disturbed 16-year-old as the new Messiah are now shocked into some sense . . . she is not the Messiah, she is just a depressed, extremely anxious and very unhappy girl.”

And his Sky stablemate Chris Kenny piled on criticism of the messenger rather than the message, saying the UN had handed the floor over to a hysterical teenager. “This ought to be pretty hilarious stuff. We ought to be able to giggle and scoff at it . . . We all know about the emotional roller-coaster ride that teenagers go through, which is why we tend to encourage and nurture them without taking their obsessions too seriously. But this girl seems overwrought, and instead of caring for her there seems to be a movement taking advantage of her.”

It’s worth remembering another 16-year-old addressing the United Nations – Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out on the issue of education for girls. She went on to become the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2014, and I don’t recall anyone saying: “She’s only a teenager, what would she know?” Or that she should be in school. Or that adults were taking advantage of her.

So when did age become a barrier to having an opinion on the important issues of the day and being willing to say it out loud? Clearly, the different challenge represented by Greta Thunberg and her young supporters is not really their age but the political sensitivity of the issue.

Even the usually moderate Network Ten commentator Joe Hildebrand fell into the “uninformed youth and why aren’t they at school” trap. He wrote: “Older and wiser heads have been working on these questions for years, sensible scientists and pragmatic policymakers who are constantly racking their brains to come up with workable solutions . . . And they are probably the sort of people who stayed in school.”

Certainly a clever line, but Hildebrand went on to tell us he was “not sure if any of the millions of kids on the streets came up with a fix” for climate change.

Like the right-wingers with their personal abuse, Hildebrand seemed to misunderstand how issue management works. The role of street protesters in issue activism – regardless of their age and regardless of the issue – is typically not to propose solutions or come up with a fix. It’s to forcibly bring attention to a problem and to urge action by those who have the power to drive change.


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Has Alan Jones finally stirred the corporate conscience?

Should corporations try to position themselves on the side of the Angels? We know from research that the public don’t trust big business or CEOs. So does it make any difference when companies step in and take a moral stance on a high-profile public issue?

This was the test for advertisers on Sydney radio station 2GB following protest when shock-jock Alan Jones suggested Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison should “shove a sock down the throat” of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Jones is a serial delinquent, with a long history of “offend-apologise-offend again.” But his latest misogynist rant was a step too far and appears to have stirred the corporate conscience in board rooms around the country. More than 100 companies said they would withdraw or suspend advertising, reportedly costing the broadcaster over $1 million.

Add this to the recent report that the company’s accounts have brought forward $3.2 million to cover unspecified potential legal claims and you have a genuine organisational crisis.

Amidst a flurry of apologies, this led to what Mumbrella called a “PR Offensive” by the radio station, writing to its advertisers to apologise for Alan Jones’ on-air conduct, and offering clients meetings with both management and Jones to hear their views on how the station can recover.

Why an offended advertiser would want to meet with the 78-year-old broadcast bully is not exactly clear. Nor is it clear whether a PR campaign is the answer to a severely damaged reputation. But it is clear that a dose of hip-pocket pressure by withdrawing advertising is more effective than a stiff letter of complaint to management.

Contrast this with a corporate response on the other side of the Pacific. Following the tragic shooting at a Walmart’s store in Texas, 145 American CEOs last month signed a letter calling on Congress to enact stronger background checks on firearm sales and ‘red flag’ laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of high-risk carriers. But NBC pointed out that just three retailers signed on – only one of those involved in selling guns – and the Walmart CEO did not add his signature to letter, arguing that Congress was already well aware of his view. Similarly, some the big PR and advertising companies signed up, but many of their clients did not.

There’s no doubt that the public – especially younger people – want companies and brands to speak up about social issues. For instance, the Edelman Earned Brand Report for 2018 shows that 64% of consumers worldwide are “belief driven buyers,” up from 51% the previous year.

Similarly a recent YouGov study in the United States showed that than half of millennials and 27% of those aged 55+ supported brands taking a stance on social issues.

But did last month’s letter to Congress serve any purpose at all? New York attorney and crisis expert Richard Levick is hardly convinced. “Ultimately, companies can flex their financial muscle, but the impact is likely ‘de minimis’,” he told NBC. “If Sandy Hook didn’t move Congress, it’s hard to imagine a letter from several CEOs will.”

Meantime every day, on average, a hundred or more Americans are killed by guns and hundreds more are wounded. And in Australia, a similar advertising boycott of Alan Jones in September 2012 had died down by Christmas as advertisers trickled back.

Be it in Australia or the United States, companies may want to position themselves on the side of the angels. But without meaningful, long-lasting action, it will be about as useful as a heavenly flapping of wings.


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Joan Jett was wrong. Reputation really does matter.

Way back in 1980 American rocker Joan Jett launched her career singing: “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my reputation. You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.” It helped her become the ‘Godmother of Punk,’ but it surely would be terrible advice for any company today.

Reputation may in fact be your greatest uninsured asset. And nothing destroys reputation faster or deeper than a crisis or an issue mismanaged.

Consider the study by Aon, which surveyed over 1,400 risk management professionals in 60 countries. It identified damage to reputation as the single biggest risk which companies face. Or the earlier ground-breaking Economist Intelligence Unit study which found that reputation risk is nearly three times greater than the risk of terrorism or natural disasters, and far surpasses regulator, human capital, IT network and market risks.

Yet despite this reality, a more recent Deloitte report revealed the worrying fact that only 19% of executives were confident in their own organisation’s ability to protect against and respond to reputation risk.

While the exact value of reputation is not easy to measure, we know that it reflects the cumulative perception of stakeholders – including customers, suppliers, employees, regulators and the media – based on their experience and contact with you. It may even be based on a perception which is untrue or unfair.

Furthermore, we know that reputation is built up over time by consistent performance and behaviour, not by short term initiatives or feel-good corporate advertising. Look no further than last year’s TV and print reputation campaign by the Australian Bankers Association around the time that damning evidence was being admitted before the Royal Commission into misdeeds in the financial sector. The message of the mercifully short-lived campaign was: “Profits don’t belong to the banks, they belong to everyday Australians like you,” which was little comfort to the “everyday Australians” financially ruined by newly-revealed policies which gravely disadvantaged customers.

Remember, branding is what you say about yourself, while reputation is what others say about you. It’s determined in the minds of customers and other stakeholders, not in brainstorming sessions at your advertising agency.

So, apart from running your organisation well and providing great products and service, how can you control some of the factors which influence how your reputation evolves?

  • Develop an effective mechanism for listening to customer feedback.
  • Implement an agreed protocol for promptly responding to complaints or critical comments.
  • Build and keep updated an appropriate social media presence.
  • Monitor traditional media and social media for what people are saying about you.
  • Make sure your employees know who to tell when they see or hear something negative.
  • Survey customers to find out what they think about you.
  • Foster relationships with respected third-party experts who can help if needed.
  • Actively support social responsibility beyond just day-to-day business.
  • Designate and train spokespersons to intervene when things go wrong.

When budget time comes around and they’re looking trim costs, ignore the advice of Rock Queen Joan Jett that reputation doesn’t matter. Instead listen to American self-improvement guru Brian Koslow: “There is no advertisement as powerful as a positive reputation travelling fast.”

These basic steps won’t guarantee you a positive reputation. But they are a good place to start.

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How ‘Introduced Crises’ threaten brand reputation

It’s a fact that about three quarters of all organisational crisis are not sudden unexpected events but follow red flag warnings which could have, and should have, been identified in advance.

But there is an emerging class of events I call ‘Introduced Crises’ – where reputational risk is instigated by external events, often social media-driven, over which the company or brand has little control and usually no warning.

A prime example is when American white supremacists staged a torchlight march in the glare of what were described as Tiki-torches, and the phrase was constantly repeated for weeks. No thought of course for the unlucky manufacturer, which found itself unwittingly linked to a racist cause.

The company made its position clear, that Tiki Brand was not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and their products are “designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.” Sadly, the reputational damage was done, and the unwarranted association will likely persist for years.

The latest victims of such an Introduced Crisis are innocent businesses in Hong Kong which recently found themselves caught up in pro-democracy protests. China has put heavy pressure on high-profile companies – which are seemingly not in any way complicit – to support the Chinese line and sanction staff who attend the demonstrations. They even forced the British CEO of Cathay Pacific Airline to resign.

However, Introduced Crises which damage brand are not new. Think of the brand impact when long-standing Subway spokesman Jared Fogle – widely known as “the Subway guy” – was jailed for 15 years for child sex offences.

Or when a manager at New Balance expressed support for Donald Trump’s “made in America” trade policy, and the neo-nazi website Daily Stormer labelled the company’s sneakers “the official shoes of white people.” The company quickly declared that “New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form,” but here again the damage was done and the racist label gained enormous exposure.

Or consider the high-profile drug companies which got dragged into the death penalty debate and had to block their brands from being used in executions by lethal injection.

Then there was the notorious case when Heineken was falsely accused of sponsoring dogfighting. It arose from a photograph of a dogfight at a nightclub in Mongolia years earlier where Heineken posters appeared in the background, left over from an earlier promotion. The brewery announced it had nothing to do with the event, but the allegation and the images continued to circulate online.

Given that social media has turbocharged the spread of Introduced Crises, they are extraordinarily difficult to combat. So, what can companies do to protect brands which become innocently embroiled in controversy?

•    Don’t under-estimate how deep and long-lasting reputational damage can be
•    Issue prompt and firm statements denying involvement
•    Respond consistently as often as required to dispute the claimed link
•    Provide managers and staff with effective material to be used with customers and stakeholders
•    Monitor and respond to misstatements on social media

Most importantly, responding to an Introduced Crisis demands balance. Balancing the need to state the facts against the risk of giving oxygen to groundless claims. Balancing the need to respond against continuing to repeat the false link. It’s self-evident that a one-off denial is probably not enough. But the impact of unwarranted links and Introduced Crises can last for weeks or months and the company and brand need to establish a firm foundation to move forward.


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The ugly side of public relations damages all of us

The ugly side of public relations and issue management has been brutally on display recently – and the result is renewed damage to the reputation of what we do.

Earlier this month, an investigative report in The Guardian exposed a high-profile British lobbying firm secretly using unbranded “news” pages on Facebook to promote sometimes dubious clients. The report detailed how CTF Partners – run by Sir Lynton Crosby, a close ally of Boris Johnson – professionalised online disinformation campaigns to burnish the image of the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of involvement in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal.

The Guardian disclosed, for example, how supposedly independent Facebook news pages on the war in Yemen were actually created by CTF on behalf of the Saudi Government, and how  what appeared to be an environmental organisation attacking British government subsidies to onshore windfarms was overseen by CTF, which had a contract with a major coalminer.

This damning story came just days after the New York Times revealed how a public relations company wrote an article praising the business acumen of accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein and paid a journalist $600 to put his name on it and post the story in Forbes magazine. In fact NYT found that Forbes, the National Post and Huffington Post were all “hoodwinked” into running stories promoting Epstein, reportedly as part of a planned campaign to rehabilitate his reputation after getting out of jail for sexual offences in 2009.

And on top of all of this was the demise of the once-respected British PR company Bell Pottinger, which spectacularly collapsed in late 2017 after its involvement in a campaign deliberately designed to stoke racial hatred in South Africa. The company was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association for unethical and unprofessional behaviour which brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute, and it soon went into administration as clients deserted in droves.

While others remain unpunished, what’s common to such cases is the hidden use of unbranded or deceptive sources to shape controversial issues, and the systematic publication of what has come to be known as “fake news.”

Public relations professionals and issue managers sometimes legitimately work on behalf of dubious clients and questionable causes. And there are plenty of advocates who argue that even the most egregious dictator or oligarch is entitled to have their voice heard. Moreover, communicators exposed using questionable tactics – as in the recent case of CTF – will typically say that what they are doing is “within the law.”

But the question here is not whether honest practitioners should take on so-called toxic clients or toxic issues, because they always have a choice – as was shown a few years ago when a group of the biggest global PR consultancies declared they would not work with climate change deniers. And others have declined to work with Big Tobacco.

The real question is not what clients you accept, but what methods you are willing to adopt to promote those clients or causes, regardless of whether or not you act “within the law.”

When unethical practice is exposed it damages all of us and erodes trust in government and organisational communication. Sadly, recent media reports suggest that such behaviour continues to be sanctioned, and continues to undermine the ability for society to have informed and balanced discussion on important issues of the day.

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Is changing name an effective crisis strategy?

A single photograph has triggered a flurry of discussion about the value of changing name to respond to a crisis. The recent picture was of a new aircraft in Ryanair livery with the designation showing as Boeing 737 8200 instead of the regular Boeing 737 MAX.

Nobody would usually care much except that MAX is the accepted name of the new Boeing aircraft which suffered two terrible fatal accidents within just five months – in Indonesia and Ethiopia – killing a total of 346 passengers and crew when they crashed just minutes after take-off. This led to the global grounding of the plane-maker’s fastest-selling model.

Not surprisingly the apparent name change suggested by the photograph prompted fresh speculation that Boeing is trying to rebrand the troubled plane prior to its much-delayed return to service.

Unfortunately, Boeing itself – already severely criticised for its communication about the two air-crash disasters – has done little to fully address the speculation.

When President Trump tweeted in April that Boeing should rebrand the plane with a new name, company spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there had been “no discussion” of a name change. But a few weeks later Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith set the hares running again when he told media at the Paris Air Show that the company was open to the idea. “We’re committed to doing what is needed to restore it (the aircraft’s reputation). If that means changing the brand to restore it then we’ll address that.”

But a formal corporate statement quickly shot the speculation down: “We remain open-minded to all input from customers and other stakeholders, but have no plans at this time to change the name of the 737 Max.” Then came the unexpected photo of the Ryanair plane which renewed the issue once again . . .  and Boeing and Ryanair chose to remain silent.

So is a name change a viable crisis strategy? For a consumer product maybe, but almost certainly not for a major corporate brand. Following the Toyota recall crisis in 2009-2010 there was widespread discussion – particularly in the USA – that the company would have to change its name to survive. Of course it didn’t, and within 12 months the Japanese car-maker had regained its position as world number one.

Similarly, after Malaysia Airlines lost two aircraft in early 2014 – one shot down over Ukraine and one mysteriously disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean – it was widely predicted that the airline would have to rebrand. Again, that is not what happened and Malaysia Airlines is slowly rebuilding its reputation.

There have been some high-profile name changes, seemingly to create distance from past problems (even though the link is sometimes denied). Think no further than Transfield Services which became Broadspectrum following controversy involving the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres; or Ardent Leisure, parent company of Dreamworld, which changed its name to Main Event after a fatal accident at the theme park in 2016; or the Lance Armstrong Foundation which became the Livestrong Foundation after the cyclist’s drug disgrace; or the world’s most notorious oil tanker Exxon Valdez which was later renamed Sea River Mediterranean.

However, given the massive brand equity in a name like Toyota or Boeing 737, built up over many years, a name change for the Boeing MAX seems most unlikely, especially since Boeing has consistently defended its safety record. “There is no technical slip or gap here,” said CEO Dennis Muilenburg. “We understand our plane. We understand how the design was accomplished and remain fully confident in the product.”

As Donald Trump said in his uncharacteristically modest Tweet: “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing. But if I were Boeing, I would fix the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, and rebrand the plane with a new name. But again, what the hell do I know?”



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