Observing Facebook navigate the onslaught of negative media coverage fueled by the Cambridge Analytics fiasco and Russian operatives using Facebook advertising to advance their cause, I wanted to revisit reputation management and being ready when things don’t go according to plan.
Virtually every organization experiences a point in time that feels like a demolition derby. For those not familiar with this form of entertainment, let me explain. Roughly 25 cars start off in the playing field. Once the competition starts, the cars proceed to crash into each other. The goal is to destroy the other 24 cars with the winning car being the last one that can still move. As you can imagine, the victorious don’t exactly look the part.
I suspect Facebook feels like it’s in the middle of a demolition derby with adversaries coming at them from all directions.
Of course, organizations of all types experience crises or a series of events that damage business. They don’t always play out in global media headlines. Regardless, tough times can cause rational executives to make irrational decisions.
I’m sure Facebook feels that way at this very moment as it tries to reassure the public that the 50 million private accounts being accessed by Cambridge Analytica during the U.S. presidential election was an anomaly and its algorithms can no longer be manipulated for nefarious purposes.
This is where the communications function can be a difference-maker in an organization, helping the leadership parse the issues and consider how to best communicate to the outside world. Yet this can only happen if communications speaks the truth.
I recognize this isn’t easy. Strong-willed leaders — not just the fella in the White House, but business leaders ranging from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos — often try to bend the world to their aspirations. They don’t take well to bad news; hence the cliché, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Still, if we don’t speak the truth — dodging the arrows that may come our way — our counsel quickly degrades into spin.
Yes, we bring an agenda to the table. We strive to help our clients or organizations put their best foot forward. We want the outside world to perceive our clients/organizations as a force of good with take-your-pick characteristics:
Spin enters the picture when we communicate falsehoods to cultivate the desired perception.
Of course, we work in shades of gray. When does communicating accurate information, but not ALL the information, become spin? Are major newspapers “spinning” when they don’t include a photo credit because the image came from the PR function? This doesn’t seem like a big deal. What if a publication essentially rewrites a story that first appeared elsewhere and does not provide proper attribution to the original source? The deception has consequences that cut to the core of the product.
If a company is developing a product that isn’t performing according to the specifications during a beta program, we’re not going to send out a news release to announce the problem. That’s not how transparency works. What about the company that hires academics to conduct a “scientific” study that puts the company’s products in a positive light? If the company does not disclose the relationship, is it spin?
I just read a Washington Post story on White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that explores her impossible position between a rock and hard head (not a typo):
- “Sanders’s defenders say she spends considerable time crafting talking points that convey the president’s wishes but also are technically truthful. If she is guilty of anything, they say, it is providing incomplete information.”
We live in a messy world. Furthermore, the heightened sensitivity to what’s true and accurate puts greater pressure on communications to get it right. Malaysia has passed legislation that outlaws fake news defined as “misleading information.” The law, which will carry up to six years in prison, not only goes after the individual(s) behind the fake news, but also holds accountable those who maliciously spread the information. I’m guessing the premium on liability insurance just went up for PR consultancies in Malaysia.
Back to the big picture, I’ve always believed that communications at its best serves as the conscience of the company, steering decisions and actions to align with the organization’s aspirations and core values. This means that communications has a say in how the organization behaves and the actions it takes. It is the opposite of spin. We’re not just communicating the organization’s story. We’re part of the organization’s story. That’s how we survive and even thrive in the perception demolition derby.
At least that’s my utopia.
Hey, a fella can dream.
Note: A version of this post appeared in Reputation Today.