As communicators, we’ve all seen wonderful causes fail to make an impact, sway minds and prompt action. For example:
- The legislative program that saves lives but can’t get that important point across because the explanation is lost in “wonkspeak”
- The honorable company that chooses not to respond to untrue allegations because they don’t want to “lower themselves” to participate in a fractious interchange.
- The candidate under attack who says nothing rather than possibly alienate somebody
In each instance, decisions are made, ostensibly according to best practices. Well, this is reality: the rules of communication have changed. People think differently, react differently, and absorb information differently than they did even five years ago. Disinformation and “fake news” influence millions. This phenomenon can’t be ignored. How we communicate today must change, to accommodate new realities. We need a new playbook.
For more information on who to deal with “Fake news” and tools to track and defuse it, please see this wonderful blog on the PRBI (Public Relations Boutiques International) site.
How Have the Rules of Communication Changed?
To illustrate the new rules of engagement, let’s take the example of a political candidate running for election. While the quicksands of politics may be more dangerous that corporate communications, this field is the true “trendsetter” in communication. Remember when politicians were the only ones who knew how to bridge from a controversial question to their message points? And now everyone does it? The same insights can be gained from looking at how politicians deal with (or should deal with) communication and messaging in the disinformation age.
So, take this quiz and see how you do in the “disinformation wars.” For fast learning and retention, the answers are after each question. The incumbent known for thousands of mendacious comments accuses the candidate of an implausible misdeed. (He had sex with an alien, for instance. Or she used to be a prostitute. You name it – it’s outrageous). Should you:
- Say nothing. It’s so stupid, no one will believe this. If we deny it, it will only draw attention to what is a ridiculous accusation.
- Tweet an innocuous comment supporting family values with a photo of the candidate and his/her family.
- Say, “There’s no truth to this. Add it to the “Pinocchio” list. And what’s really important is that you, the American people, have leaders who…”
- Start a rumor about the other candidate, that is equally horrible but based in fact.
Correct answer? C. It is a fact, which we have learned over the last few years and which research has proven, that even the most incredible lie can begin to sound believable when it is repeated over and over and over again. Remember the child porn ring allegedly run out of a pizza parlor by another political candidate? Millions still believe that. (But not the armed man who broke into the restaurant to free those poor children – a tour of the facility convinced him that there were no under-age sex slaves on the premises. But for the candidate, too late).
And while you are bringing to the forefront the real issues,
You’ve just passed a wonderful piece of legislation that will provide needed health care to people who don’t have it, and whose health and finances are suffering because they don’t have it. The other side vociferously opposes this bill. Do you:
- Take a tour of the states where the bill’s opponents live, showing how their constituents will benefit. Bring and invite lots of media. Include the amount of money that is being saved because now, with proper care, people will require less expensive care.
- Have a signing in the office with those who benefit from the bill and a photo op with the relevant stakeholders.
- Have a press conference in which you explain the intricacies of the bill from a policy and legal perspective.
Answer? A. If you don’t explain this milestone in human terms, get buy-in from your opponents’ constituencies, and keep telling that human story over and over again, you risk attacks that will eventually put that law in danger. Attacks are flying right and left. Do you:
- Ignore them. This is politics. Suck it up. If you don’t pay any attention to them, they will die in tomorrow’s news cycle.
- Spend time responding to each one. You never know what crazy stuff people will believe.
- Enlist allies outside of the political realm to carry your message and come to your defense. (business leaders, ministers, academics, constituents from your community).
Answer? C. The problem with politics is – politics. Candidates are always attacked. Responding to everything puts them on the defensive. And no one really likes or trusts politicians so too many denials sound defensive. However, surrounding your candidate with credible allies who have no skin in the game except to support good leadership in government, will get you much more mileage and credibility. And these statements or interviews should not be denials, but positive affirmations of the candidate’s vision, values and leadership.
Twenty-five years ago, your candidate was in a group picture with both male and female co-workers. Now one of the women has come forward to claim that his hand slipped down from her waist to her hips in the group hug. She claims this was improper. He has no memory of this occurring and he assures you – and you know – he doesn’t do this type of thing. Female colleagues are criticizing him and it’s a media tempest. Do you advise him to:
- Say, “I understand that she may remember this happening, I do not. It was certainly not my intention. This is not how I conduct myself. I completely support the MeToo movement and women’s rights to be treated with respect. The real problem here is the men who do abuse, grope and debase women, and who brag about it. That is not what this country is about. We are better than this.”
- He says he’s sorry and will never do anything like that again. He now understands how offensive this is and would never dream of doing it again.
- Do nothing. It’s silly and it will blow over.
- Those women will never let up on him now.
Answer? A. Enough apologizing already! If someone is innocent, they should not apologize. It’s seen as weakness and a sign of guilt. Bring those women critics in for a discussion – tell them the truth and ask for their support in making sure the real abuses experienced by women are abolished.
The communications and policy teams have come up with a list of ten principles for the platform. Do you:
- Review and OK them. They are well thought out and detailed. Everything from abortion to immigration to suppression of voters’ rights is covered.
- Hone them down into three powerful vision statements for America. All of the legislative changes and initiatives can be summarized under one of these three points.
- Give them to media and post them online.
Answer? B. Lists of policy initiatives are BORING. People are lost after the third one. What is missing in America today is VISION. Remember “Ask not what your country can do for you?” Remember, “I have a dream?” That is the kind of vision that can win the hearts and minds of Americans. By organizing the policy changes into broader vision statements, you can get people to buy into the larger picture, and then focus on implementation
Attacks, critiques and “fake news” are seeping into the communications your target audience is getting. You’re not sure if it is the opposition, the Russians, or maybe even legitimate questions or criticisms. Do you:
- Ignore it. It’s still a free country.
- Do some research to see if there are skeptics or critics within your own ranks. Reach out to them directly or as a group to answer their concerns.
- Go on the offensive. Take your story to enemy territory – their TV network, their home turf, their constituency, their churches. Pick issues you know they care about, and request meetings to talk about them.
Answer? B and C. It’s possible that the criticism is coming from, say, independents who have genuine questions and doubts that you can answer. For C, taking your arguments and position to enemy territory will shake things up and put the other side on the defensive. You may not win votes from their “base,” but independents are listening and watching. When you are the one meeting with the other side’s constituents, it says you are the one to bring everyone together.
The campaign staff is divided. One side wants to remain dignified, aloof and let the opponent bury himself/herself under their ridiculous rhetoric. The other side wants to go for the jugular. Do you:
- Pick a middle ground – combat your opponents’ scurrilous opinings with assertive, visionary, exciting language and stories, showing you doing what you are preaching with the people who look to you for leadership.
- Remain dignified and let your opponent dig his/her hole of ignominy.
- When they attack, you attack back. Two can fling dirt. And there is so much dirt you could fling!
Answer? A. You don’t have to use their tactics to win, or betray your own integrity. But remember, lies that are repeated come to be viewed as truth. You have to be everywhere, all the time, putting out your message – strongly. And use your allies so you don’t get “media fatigue.”
The polls give you direction on how to craft your messaging. Trouble is, by the time you boil it down, it’s designed to offend no one and is as watered down as yesterday’s green tea. Do you:
- Look to the polls for the overriding messages that people respond to you that correspond to your vision. Hone those down and work with them, repetitively.
- Scrap the polls. Go with your instincts. Or the candidate’s opinions.
- Choose the middle path that will not offend anyone. You can’t afford to lose any votes.
Answer? A. Messaging too finely honed by polls sounds inauthentic. And it’s either too narrow or too broad. Take the information in polls and season it with a healthy dose of common sense and your vision.
Tomorrow’s speech includes some humor at the expense of the opponent. Some are concerned it will backfire and make the candidate look snarky, or just plain dumb. Do you:
- Take it out, to be on the safe side.
- Evaluate it to for its potential to reflect well on the candidate (i.e. he/she is witty and sharply intelligent) and its potential to go viral. Also, consider the candidate’s ability to deliver humor.
- Use humor visually. Employ cartoonists and illustrators to create memes of the opponent’s false promises, compare lies with truth, charts and graphs to show the truth. We are conditioned to be visual learners. Humor goes viral.
Answer. B and C. Not everyone can use humor. Be cautious. But used effectively, it is powerful. Using images and clever repartee will make memes that are memorable and shared. And remember, it’s best if a third person creates and shares this content.
In summary, winning the disinformation wars means:
- Assertively speaking the truth, bridging always to your vision
- Being memorable and being visual.
- Taking the debate into enemy territory – the media, the geography, the audience.
- Using the enemy’s falsehoods and mistakes against them, but stick to facts and visuals to do so.
So how did you do on the quiz? Were you outraged as some of these recommendations? Intimidated? Amused? Do you find the threads that are true throughout all communications, not just in politics?
So – what do YOU think? What are the best communication tactics to win in the disinformation wars?
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