‘Post Truth’ and the Need for Reputation Resilience

This is a blog post by Rupert Wright, Co-Chairman of Hemington Consulting.  Rupert is a former business editor who has has written for most of the world’s major newspapers including the Financial Times, Washington Post, The Times and Wall Street Journal. He was instrumental in the start-up of the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi in 2008 and is the former Chairman of Edelman Middle East.

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Remember the stir during the US election campaign when it was reported that Donald Trump had said that if he ever ran for the presidency he would run as a Republican because “their supporters are so dumb?”

Problem is, he never ever said such a thing.  It was fake news, but taken seriously.

When I started out as a journalist more than 25 years ago, facts were sacred. Every story had to have at least two sources, and quotes were not to be tampered with.  Boris Johnson, then a trainee at The Times, was sacked because when asked where he had got a quote from, replied: “I made it up. I thought everybody did that.

No, they didn’t.

Newspaper offices had sub-editors and editors, some even had fact checkers, and everything that was printed had been seen by at least three different pairs of eyes. Then the Internet came along, and everyone became a journalist. And somewhere along the way, the truth became a casualty.

Speed, opinion, and polemic were the new mantra, becoming more important than the truth. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press officer, was able to spread stories of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and as a result, a country was invaded and chaos ensued in the Middle East.

It is no surprise that ‘post-truth’ has become the word of this year.  I prefer to call it as it is – innuendo, lies or outright nonsense.  Post truth is a rather generous euphemism.

On the basis that any publicity is good publicity, the impact on a candidate of such ‘post-truth’ stories is probably limited. But the impact of negative publicity on the corporate world can be much more damaging.  One recalls Winston Churchill’s words “a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its trousers on.

Just days after Donald Trump became president-elect, a spokesman for New Balance, a manufacturer of running shoes, said that things might be heading in “the right direction.”  Almost immediately social media was full of photos of New Balance shoes burning, sales crashed, and a white supremacist website called them “the official shoes of white people.”

PepsiCo was also hit by fake news websites. Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo, was reported as saying that Donald Trump’s supporters could “take their business elsewhere”. Problem is, she had said nothing of the sort.  Even so the damage was done.

How does the corporate world guard against this sort of attack, something that is as damaging as a cyber attack?  Here are our five suggestions:

  1. Active digital monitoring. Across surface internet, social media, dark web, deep web, and public records. Keep a 24-hour watch on what is being said about your company, people, or brands.
  2. Establish active networks with friends and enemies in advance – engaging in person and on social media.
  3. Be ready to respond with vigour, even it means paying for Twitter and Facebook feeds.
  4. Have a clear and simple message. Think how effective ‘Make America Great Again’ was, even if it was copied directly from President Reagan
  5. Repeat the message as often as required.
  6. Stick to your area of competence, and avoid politics. Indra Nooyi was targeted because after the election result she said: “I had to answer a lot of questions from my daughters, from our employees. They were all in mourning. Our employees were all crying. The question that they are asking, especially those who are not white: ‘Are we safe?’ Women are asking ‘Are we safe?’ LGBT people are asking ‘Are we safe?'”

On the Internet, nobody is safe.

Everybody needs a reputation strategy to protect themselves, and to deal with the risk of attack.

rw@hemingtonconsulting.co.uk

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