Faking it for the news
When did you realise your newspaper was faking it? On your first free-content anniversary? When — like an unexpected lovers tiff — they stormed off leaving a pay wall and a miserly 2 free articles a month in their wake? Or was it when they started cheating on you with other news outlets, sneaking in repurposed content that looked suspiciously like that sassy shade of tabloid?
In what will almost certainly shock to your core — insert sarcasm here — your social networks have been cheating on you too.
Those people on Instagram? Not born with it. Angles. Filters. Lighting. Experts on Twitter? Mostly self-appointed. Followers bought. ‘Influencers’ that influence no one. News stories in your Facebook feed? Paid to reach your eyeballs. Per single click and view.
The truth is the “news” has been faking it like a heavy breathing, name screaming, fifty shades of Tinderella for years. And until recently we didn’t mind a bit.
Why we WANT to believe fake news
Remember that poster behind Mulder’s desk on The X-Files that read “I want to believe”?
During times of uncertainty people tend to want to believe in everything. Here’s why:
1. Hive Mentality (Group Think)
When the equilibrium of rationality falls out of balance, as is the case in ‘fake news’, resisting the status quo becomes a challenge for the individual. When an opinion is shared — even erroneously or perceptually suggested — those with opposing views are quickly sidelined, trolled, or steam rolled in the echo chamber that is the inter-webs.
In a crisis, this means once a perception has been promulgated and established — no matter how erroneous it may be — changing that audience’s view becomes extremely challenging. If that perception is laden with emotional cues and strong personal reliability, you’re in for a prolonged change activity.
2. Confirmation Bias
Do you remember the old adage: if a lie is repeated often enough it will become accepted as truth? Spin and ‘fake news’ work in much the same way because humans have the tendency to take the path of least resistance when dealing with unknowns. If we aren’t experts, don’t know or have personal experience with the individual/brand in question, or are generally apathetic to the issue in general — in the absence of another narrative — we will believe what we see and hear most frequently.
In a crisis you can try to spin your way out of trouble, hoping you won’t get caught in the disingenuous act, or you can provide positive reinforcement of key factual messages to counter or dominate the narrative. The latter may not always work because the media won’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. Scandal sells which is why you need to break your bad own news first, before the hive mind gets the chance to confirm and establish an erroneous bias.
3. Learned Helplessness
How often do you feel that the actions you take — such as voting for example — have no real tangible positive outcomes on your life?
In a crisis, if your audience is feeling the weight of your big bad corporate whack-a-mole mentality, you reinforce their learned helplessness, making them trust you even less than they did to start with. Loss of trust can quickly turn to anger, hostility and hate — all highly emotive responses that are difficult to change.
4. Cognitive Dissonance
When a person’s worldview is challenged — a view that they believe so deeply even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary — denial ensues. In many cases, changing their worldview on a single-issue means they need to acknowledge other inconvenient truths that they simply don’t want to concede.
In a crisis, you need to be mindful of just how far you can push your audience to massage or change their perceptions. Too little strategic effort applied, results in no tangible outcomes. Too much and you alienate people as they retreat into their safe denial space. Finding the sweet spot takes research, behavioural insights and market testing.
When news isn’t news and why it matters to Crisis Communications
To be considered “news”, a story must be considered new, noteworthy, relevant to its intended audience and timely.
Have a quick scan of almost any news site and you’ll quickly discover that less than 20% of the stories on the home page actually fit the definition of ‘news’.
The rest? Sponsored content vying for your attention, gossip and otherwise unhelpful stories about random topics. That’s not to be said non-news — ‘news’ doesn’t have an audience: it’s a highly profitable business, particularly if a pay wall is attached — it’s just less effective in establishing credibility, even with repetition. Quality journalism appearing in quality publications still carries the weight of credibility that some softer news sites lack.
When communicating during a crisis, the definition of ‘news’ becomes both proximal and temporal as perceptions are cultivated, resisted and countered. If you haven’t invested in the news-media cycle of the long term, your short burst crisis strategy won’t work. Messages with cut through and good media relations will help you survive the immediate crisis, but without a solid SEO legacy, your digital footprint is covered in mud that just won’t wash off.
We don’t have a fake news problem, we have a reality problem
The Edelman 2017 Trust Barometer highlights that ‘trust’ is in crisis. From fake news to political upsets and economic tremors, we have moved into a state of constant distrust.
For crisis communicators, this means that not only do we have to deal with the incident at hand but also the prevailing (and at time flawed) framing and agenda setting that led to the crisis in the first place.
When we build people and brands up so high, with such staged managed perfection, we set the stage for a cognitive battle between the reality of the crisis and the image we so carefully crafted that has, at times spectacularly, lost its lustre. By taking the human element out of our communications we strip away tactical public relations options during a crisis.
People don’t trust brands or manufactured identities in a crisis: they trust real people. Because real people don’t need to fake it.