Image of stop button for disinformation.

Gatekeepers Matter More Than Ever in a Flood of Digital Disinformation

Remember the gatekeepers? The discerning people with ethics, intelligence and diligence who provided valuable information in a democracy? Do you know who they are? Read on.

The controversy engulfing Facebook and other social media comes down to the basic premise, or false supposition, that people believed in thinking if they set their privacy settings to lock down their profiles, then Facebook would protect their identities. Not so. Facebook is not a gatekeeper. On the contrary.

By joining a social network housed on the Internet, users became a commodity. Advertisers can target defined audiences by selecting interests. In my experience, there is nothing nefarious about wanting to target people – on an aggregated basis – who live in X city, who like Y product, etc. and position your ad for that type of product in front of them.

Of course, the problem is when Facebook users have been targeted with fake news, based on their psychological profile as gleaned from Facebook data. Now, it is crystal clear why certain friends and family were so inclined to share outrageously false stories masquerading as news.

As for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I agree, as a matter of fact, with some of what Steve Bannon said at an FT tech conference: data mining and targeted marketing is nothing new. The issue, though, is whether individual Facebook users had authority to give an app full access to their friends’ data and then the issue of how that data all was extracted for commercial purposes. Raise your hand and admit you clicked OK for that. So, you would think, OK, fine, so if me and my friends like cycling, we will probably see ads on Facebook for bikes, cycling clothes and accessories, etc. OK, maybe you realized that the data would go into a database and be categorized on an aggregated basis as percentages of people who like cycling, etc.

When it comes to politics, however, people’s hackles get raised when anyone tells them personally how to vote. After all, the United States has secret balloting. And, it’s kinda creepy to think that a further step was taken: if you fit certain personality styles, you received ads from fake news pages and the like. That’s where the manipulation comes in.

From a marketing perspective, it’s great to know you can target people demographically for particular products. A health nut is not going to be interested in the cupcakes recipe, presumably. So, you can direct your baking recipes at a bunch of sweet-tooths. But, the key consideration remains with the content, whether in an ad or not: are you authentic, and moreover, truthful?

The other issue is disclosure. In political advertising on TV, radio and print, we are used to the candidate stating they approved the message. But when a pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake news story came out of Macedonia or wherever, there was no disclosure of who paid for it. Same with all those Russian bots.

The problem isn’t the data sharing. The problem is what kind of messaging was used to target certain people to manipulate them and, “sow discord,” as the Mueller indictment against 13 Russians put it. That’s why it’s so ridiculous that Bannon could try waving all of this off by suggesting it’s exactly what Obama did. Do you remember any Russian propaganda on Facebook in 2008 and/or 2012 trashing John McCain or Mitt Romney? No, we needed to wait until 2016 to watch Trump do that himself. Which brings me back to gatekeepers.

You cannot rely on the social media platforms to self-regulate the content that is shared. They really do not want to be in the publishing business, which would make them accountable for every errant story or disinformation posted. Instead, you can take ownership of your feeds. For starters, follow real news organizations.

While many traditional news organizations have decimated their reporting staffs (have you noticed how your local TV news shares viral videos in lieu of reporting on city council actions?), those that remain in the news business do have protocols for vetting stories. Reporters separate fact from fiction and editors guide the process of ensuring stories are accurately told.

The emphasis on balancing viewpoints is waning by necessity because that construct was gamed. People with outrageous and misleading points could count on getting a word in for the sake of balanced news. Not anymore. The gatekeepers are pushing back, so when a falsity is stated (even by the president of the United States), the real news people note, for the record, that a comment is incorrect.

If you support an idea and hear an anchor or reporter contradicting it, try not to get defensive of the idea and person who said it. Think more deeply about whether it’s true and why they would want you to believe a lie. It’s not just the Russian trolls who spread falsity and actual fake news.

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How to Deliver Bad News with Good Communications

How does one maintain a positive message when a product is realigned or even ceases to exist? If a business line is unwinding, how does one gracefully support it while acknowledging its demise?

Sometimes a product line unwinds because it was associated with a celebrity whose star faded or imploded (see Nike Livestrong accessories). Or, a product line might get pulled in the face of stiff competition, in which case you may want to promote that you are clearing inventory. Even stating the sales will continue “while supplies last” could hasten the dwindling of the inventory. Granted, you want to say that in a tasteful manner and not evince any sense of desperation.

You can put a positive face on a fall.

You can put a positive face on a fall.

Be honest

Perhaps you believe you built a better mousetrap, and perhaps you really did, but too many competitors also had great mousetraps and maybe better marketing, distribution, pricing, cost basis, etc. Tell the customers how much you still back the product, but feel the time has come to let it go. Communicate the positive.

Put it out there

Gone are the days of a static memo. You need to put a face on your words. Here is where video can really help by serving multiple purposes in your crisis communications. The people who made the difficult decision should be on camera explaining how they arrived at this decision. Contrast that with just plain, cold words on paper or on a screen. The speakers’ faces and verbal tone will show empathy and regrets.

A second reason video helps is it is easily sharable on social media and your message will be quickly and readily disseminated to audiences you may not otherwise reach. Thirdly, this medium for storytelling really allows you to define yourself rather than allow other parties to describe you. It shows you have accountability. Fourthly, videos are memorable and will replay in people’s minds, further reinforcing your message.

Move fast on messaging

The news is going to come as a shock to some and bad news travels fast. You want customers to hear it from you first. Give the news to employees and then immediately roll the outside communications. Separate human resources discussions from external communications, but do give employees links to the press release and FAQ so if anyone asks them for information about the closing, then they can forward the proper information. Make it easier for the employees this way.

Disclose as much as possible. Vagueness and glaring omissions tend to invite speculation and rumors. Spare yourself as much aggravation as possible by disclosing the real reasons yourself.

Open a dialogue

Make it immediately clear that you are not pulling up stakes and leaving any customers in the lurch. Be sure to communicate contact information for questions and provide a frequently asked questions (FAQ) sheet with information on returns, redemptions, replacement parts, etc. Stand by the product and stand by its customers. Let them know the schedule for the product’s end or business closing.

Thank your customers for their business and support. If possible, recommend a competitor. After all, if you are exiting the market, suggesting an alternative is good customer service. Plus, if you are selling other products or expect to be in any other business, you want consumers to remember you in a positive light.

Delivering bad news is no fun, but if properly handled, you can hold your head up high.

For more information about business communications, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.

Unconventional Sources of Information are Nothing New

The television production opening of the Republican debate in Las Vegas blared like a boxing promo, which was no doubt by design. I half expected a voiceover to intone, “Monster, monster, monster truck political showdown tonight.” The debate was all about showmanship: who would show up the poll leader; who could beat their chest the loudest; and, who, perhaps would showcase the most substance?

People immediately arrived at their answers to those questions, as evidenced in real-time in the Twittersphere and on Facebook. Social media is how we discover and experience news nowadays.

“Of late, politicians running for office have been tapping into the unconventional and unorthodox sources of ‘news’ that Americans have become acclimated to.” I cringe at this line because in a 1992 college paper, I ended a sentence with a preposition. Argghh! Anyhow, I went on to cite MTV News as emblematic of the new kinds of news sources at that time, contrasted with the main broadcast news channels, and how sound bites were getting shorter and shorter.

Today, we operate with tweets (myself included) to quickly glean a headline or drop a note. I pondered in that 1992 college paper whether society would reach a saturation point at which we could no longer tolerate “this potpourri of images and ideas thrown” at us. I added that this is especially concerning when it comes to politics, given we hope voters are making truly informed choices. I expressed doubt that the American people had developed an “astute talent… to form opinions with little or no information.” This concern remains true, but the potpourri of information and word bites has not turned out to be all that bad.

As predicted by others in the early 1990s, consumers are now able to package the streams of information coming their way and ignore other information. In another paper for this journalism school class, I also bemoaned the threat to traditional reporting posed by information disseminated by specialists. My concern was that consumers would self-select what information they wanted and would tune out everything else. Well, it seems that nowadays people are indeed selecting to check out what interests them most and still absorb what else may be happening. Honestly, I see a lot of things on Twitter and Facebook that are news to me and then I check them out further. That’s not a bad thing at all.

This 1992 paper also contemplated how “voiced information” and “image icons” could lower barriers to the information highway for those with literacy or other language challenges. I’m frankly surprised we were expecting that back in 1992. Turns out these icons and videos are not replacing written content, but supporting it. Emoticons can be fun and informative, especially to support text, just like cartoons did in 19th century newspapers.

The college student me also warned in that j-school paper about digital manipulation of photographic images. Well, now I love the filters on Instagram and we all can tell what is unedited and what is filtered. “I admit some of my opinions are conservative and apprehensive,” college student me wrote. I also pondered what effects “computer news services, such as electronic bulletin boards and fax sheets” would have on traditional journalism. Good thing I was paying attention because most of my many years in business news were employed in specialized, subscriber-supported news services, and that model bridged the shift from print to all digital delivery.

The means for consumers to collect information has changed. Their appetite for information may have increased. It is still up to the individual how they want to participate in the free marketplace of ideas.

The advantage with digital information dissemination is that the speaker can directly reach their target audience by tapping into the right electronic veins. This is how the hashtag function has proved so useful. We can easily discover sources we would not have necessarily ever found before.

The key is to fully take advantage of the easily accessible delivery mechanisms of our current media array by deploying great content. Are you distinguishable from others? Do you have unique services, product or position that you need to better emphasize in your content? Keep your messaging on point, up to date and in your brand’s voice. Be clear on what the voice is before speaking and reenergizing with a carefully calibrated campaign. And, if anything can be learned so far in the run-up toward the 2016 U.S. presidential election, don’t let anyone else define who you are.

For more information on enhancing your business communications, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.

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