This is the eighth entry in our landmark blog series based on the Digital 2020 Report from Hootsuite and We Are Social. That report is loaded with statistics from around the world, and we’ve taken the opportunity to explore the deeper meaning behind the numbers. Our previous work in this series is linked below:
Part 1 – Exploring Our Digital Planet
Part 4 – Sleepless in Siam
Part 6 – A Region Primed to Explode (online)
Part 7 – Winning Over the Digital Crowd
Misinformation has reached new heights. Rising cynicism around the role of digital in political communications, accompanied by deepfakes being used by meme admins, artists and extremists to feed misinformation, is leaving people feeling disassociated from truth and clarity. In 2020, brands will be rewarded for championing transparency in the name of the greater social good.
– Hootsuite and We Are Social
The above description from the Digital 2020 Report helps to introduce the phenomenon of reality anxiety – defined as an increased feeling of skepticism and unease, as people come to doubt the credibility of what they see and hear around them. As we will see, this fear of the shadows is best answered by more sunlight, rather than a retreat into denial or evasion.
Fool me once …
Reality anxiety is a modern manifestation of a timeless adaptation. Consider a person who likes to go for relaxing walks around their neighborhood, and then one day gets robbed or assaulted on a walk. Regardless of how safe and pleasant the journey may appear to the naked eye, they will find themselves less at ease on future walks. And if they are victimized a second time, the prospect of walking around the neighborhood may lose all of its appeal and become little more than a source of dread.
In the virtual world, the relevant dangers are more along the lines of data theft and manipulation. When we trust platforms with our personal information and then they lose it, leak it, or lie about it, the reputational costs are considerable. When companies try to hide bad behavior instead of owning up to it, they should expect to suffer serious consequences. When news stories are designed to manufacture consent, people are learning to notice – and critics make sure we remember.
By functioning as a kind of ‘digital neighborhood’, the internet nurtures these grievances until they change our entire outlook online. Years ago, the US-based Pew Research Center found that a surprising number of people had lost their trust in the media. This sentiment spanned a variety of education levels, income brackets, political associations, and other demographic attributes.
A Gallup poll likewise found that just 37% of people in the US believe “news organizations generally get the facts straight.” Moreover, “a solid majority of the country believes major news organizations routinely produce false information.” Other countries, judging by similar social and political trends, are also wrestling with this issue.
Deservedly or not, statements from established authorities no longer carry the same weight as they did a generation ago. As Chris Hayes put it in 2012, the failure to take real responsibility has discredited not only our central institutions, but also
the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world. At the same time, the internet has produced an unprecedented amount of information to sort through and radically expanded the arduous task of figuring out just whom to trust.
Together, the discrediting of our old sources of authority and the exponential proliferation of new ones has almost completely annihilated our social ability to reach consensus on just what the facts of the matter are. When our most central institutions are no longer trusted, we each take refuge in smaller [encampments]. As some of these encampments build higher and higher fences, walling themselves off from science and empiricism, we approach a terrifying prospect: a society that may no longer be capable of reaching the kind of basic agreement necessary for social progress.
Clickbait and deepfakes have made it even harder to address the issues described above. The upshot: As a business or public figure, rather than getting the benefit of the doubt, you now must work hard to earn the trust of your audience.
But if people are waiting to jump on every mistake that you make, then this constant expectation of perfection soon becomes impossible to live up to. For many, the fear of a public backlash leads them to avoid admitting mistakes at all. Though understandable, this strategy is based on old ways of thinking, and is almost always counterproductive in the present day.
Advertising and its limitations
The contrast between 20th century and 21st century PR was never clearer than in February of this year. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the 15 richest people in the world, bought himself months of positive press coverage by blanketing both TV and Facebook with self-funded advertisements.
As news outlets rely on advertising as a core source of revenue, such a conflict of interest – particularly regarding TV – makes them reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. Their coverage of Bloomberg generally took on the character of a horse race, going easy on the issues while focusing mainly on public opinion polls that showed him steadily gaining ground week after week. This agreeable relationship with the press caused many to speculate that Bloomberg, a media mogul himself, could very well ride the wave of good PR all the way to the White House.
Then he hit a wall. In a nationally televised debate, several candidates – notably Elizabeth Warren – directly attacked Bloomberg on his alleged past mistreatment of women, in a way that few if any TV networks had done up to that point. She also picked away at his questionable law enforcement policies as mayor of New York City. Instead of offering a comprehensive apology for the people he hurt, and talking openly about how these experiences taught him to be a better person, Bloomberg made an unconvincing attempt to deflect these criticisms and defend his record.
As soon as viewers sensed that Bloomberg wasn’t being straight with them, all hell broke loose. Social media erupted in a volatile mix of mockery and outrage, with TV networks unable to hold back real criticism any longer. Bloomberg’s approval ratings plummeted, his campaign crashed and burned, and the end of his candidacy was soon merely a formality.
In the end, spending $935 million of his own money bought him a ballot victory in a single US territory: American Samoa, home to just 55,000 residents, and thousands of kilometers from the nearest land mass.
At age 78, Bloomberg was still working from an old playbook. Had he tried this tactic decades ago, he likely would have gotten away with it. Only the invention of social media has allowed the public to reliably break through the media’s narrative framework – and only the rarest of public figures can succeed when deploying the tactic that doomed Bloomberg’s campaign.
Businesses should pay close attention to the moral of this story: There is no such thing as evasion in an online society – and while advertising budgets can enhance a narrative, that money is no longer enough to shape it.
The word on the street
As many have learned the hard way, PR in the information age is far more complex than it used to be. Matters that may have stayed hidden a generation ago are far more likely to become public knowledge today – and public outrage tomorrow. Companies must communicate their own story as early as possible, talking openly with customers and putting their concerns front and center.
In the eternal quest to win over public opinion, one set of principles is effective at guiding new and established companies alike:
- Be honest and transparent. When you’re just starting out, nobody knows you – and public attitudes may include a measure of skepticism. Even recognized brand names need to overcome the occasional negative review or faulty product. People may assume the worst if you don’t give them a more convincing story. “Trust us, we’re honest” is not a communications strategy; transparency is.
- Share your motivations. Brand stories don’t need to focus on the original vision of the founder, although that could be one element. People need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. As always, not telling your potential customers just invites them to assume the worst. (“They just want my money.”)
- Inspire people with a good story. Show that you are solving problems in the world, and improving people’s lives through your work. Your story should center on your customers and the things they care about, helping audiences see that they have a real and important role to play in the success of your overall project.
- Aim for an emotional connection. People want to be understood, and will readily embrace companies whose mission and identity resonate with them. This brand connection can be far stronger if you hit the right emotional notes when delivering your message. Give people a reason to shed their cynicism, let their guard down, and believe powerfully in what you represent.
- Own your mistakes. Trust comes from mutual respect. Honor your customers, and the public at large, by taking their concerns seriously. Don’t even wait for a mistake to become widely known, let alone a full-fledged scandal. Get out ahead of it, express your sorrow, explain what went wrong, why it happened, what you’ve done to fix it, and what changes you’ve made to ensure that it will never happen again. This kind of comprehensive response, which includes taking responsibility for what went wrong, gives your critics no ammunition to use against you. People want respect, and often take serious offense when they feel they are being belittled or taken for granted. Keep public opinion on your side by clearly demonstrating that you are on the public’s side.
We have written elsewhere about these issues, but two points are particularly worth stressing. The first is that you’ll endure a nasty backlash if people detect even a hint of obfuscation. Soon after the Panama Papers accounting scandal broke around the world, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was asked about his own offshore funds. A Downing Street representative responded by saying, “It’s a private matter”.
As far as British public opinion was concerned, this response was like throwing gasoline on the fire. Cameron would later make a public disclosure about his finances – but by then the narrative was set in stone, and any foundation of trust had already been lost.
The second point to keep in mind is that whether you’re innocent or guilty of any given accusation, the series of principles outlined above remain the same. The right response will always prioritize transparency, storytelling, company mission, emotional connection, and accountability. The following is a sample blog post that an airline might post, in response to unfounded criticism:
We’ve noticed a series of online accusations which claim that our flight crews are unhygienic and our aircraft are outdated. We understand that you may have questions for us. As you will see below, you and your loved ones will always get high quality service when you fly with us.
The first claim is about hygiene. We are now sharing this page (link embedded), which is our official internal policy regarding hygiene for all staff. Please note that one of the primary responsibilities of each team leader is to regularly ensure that staff adhere to these high standards at all times, and file reports regarding every flight. We also have additional channels for internal feedback, in all our areas of operation. To date, we have received no complaints which resemble the allegations now circulating online.
The next point is about the age of our aircraft. Here we are attaching a current list of the aircraft models (link) we use, including their general maintenance records and years of service. As you can see, most of our planes are newer than the industry average, and all of them are well within the recommended age limit.
Please bookmark this page, as we will respond to any future claims or criticisms as we become aware of them. In the current environment, questions about business are to be expected. Yet let us take this moment to say that we are tremendously proud of our global team, as they help to make air travel more enjoyable and accessible to everyone. We strongly believe in the professionalism of our people, as well as our company values. We’re confident that you will see these values in action the next time you fly with us.
By taking public complaints seriously, addressing them sensitively, and using them as an opportunity to promote the company’s own messaging priorities, even PR headaches like this one can be transformed into a win-win situation.
Knowing what to say is only half the challenge. Actually communicating these kinds of messages takes real skill. Writers, social media managers, and spokespeople need to be at the top of their game in today’s environment, whether or not there is a current PR issue to be resolved.
The most important thing to do is to have all the right PR resources in place, before you need them. We recommend the following steps, if you haven’t taken them already:
- Start a blog
A blog lets you comment on any issue, in any tone of voice you choose. Blogs are great for all kinds of public-facing messages, including marketing – and they can also give your writers some practice in speaking on behalf of your brand. Building a regular foundation of content in this part of your website lets you talk about all the effort that goes into making your widgets, and how customers can get the most out of them.
- Calibrate your social media efforts
A strong social media presence can help you earn legitimacy and goodwill from your potential customers. Investing in social media can also build up your group of followers, so that your communications efforts can connect with an interested audience.
- Take advantage of SEO
SEO gives your business much more control over how it appears in search engines, so that people can hear directly from you on the issues that interest them.
- Connect with influencers
Influencers can help you connect with new audiences, with their endorsements acting as an important kind of ‘street cred’ for your brand.
- Stay alert & be prepared
Your organization should always have people monitoring the media and other online channels, so that you can respond promptly to any concerns that need to be addressed. News can break at all hours, and social media never sleeps.
Public opinion is a delicate beast, calm one moment and snarling the next. But beneath this sometimes-rough exterior is a need for attention, and friendship. Each proactive step you take to build relationships will be rewarded with a corresponding increase in trust.
Play your role the right way, and instead of being regarded as a potential danger to the global online neighborhood, you’ll be looked upon as a place of refuge. Your fortunes as a company may indeed depend on how well you earn and maintain that positive framing within the public eye. There are no magic words to say, or corners to be cut. Only through real openness and respect can you put people’s fears to rest, and tear down the wall of reality anxiety.