Archive for the Media Category

Fake News? Business Political Tactics?

Fake News? Business Political Tactics?

Let’s start with a quick poll. What will be the dominant story this week and the next biggest story? Will they be 1) Kim Jong-un meeting with President Trump, 2) celebrities and pardons, 3) celebrities and suicide, 4) DACA, 5) Taliban ceasefire, 6) opioids, 7) hacking, 8) Facebook, 9) leakers, 10) Putin, 11) China, 12) Mueller investigation, 13) trade and tariffs, 14) Roseanne, 15) Uber and Lyft, 16) Elon Musk, 17) AT&T, 18) Disney, 19) school safety, 20) professional sports, 21) ill celebrities  or 22) something else? Seriously, please comment with your first and second choice. Unless there is an exceptional tragedy or celebrity curiosity, the odds are that the top stories will have political components. These stories dominate our attention as both real news and fake news. We are sometimes fascinated by them, their impact and the political lessons we can glean from them. We might even consider deploying some of these political tactics to help our business.

business political tactics

Whether you are a fan of President Trump or not, you probably marvel at his ability to generate support, shift attention where he wants it and so heavily saturate the discussion that no one seems to have the energy to debate the issue anymore. His approaches (practitioners might call them strategies and tactics) can be very effective if you’re a developer, celebrity or politician. If you are in a major business with major investments, lengthy project payouts and significant exposure such as energy, transportation, chemicals, mining or manufacturing, you may want to put less emphasis on these current trends and impulses.

Have you ever watched a news program and been amazed by a politician or political hack’s ability to avoid the difficult issues being tossed at him or her? Did you find yourself wishing that you could avoid consequences in the same very effective manner? If a reporter calls, would you like to dismissively address all the questions without answering any of them? If activists are protesting your new facility, have you been tempted to say, “throw the bums out”?

If your competitor is capturing the market have you considered exposing their criminal behavior and calling for an investigation of their questionable practices? Have you considered being so sensational in your social media posts and public persona that you draw millions of followers and then convert those followers into paying customers? Do you consider fake news and bots an expedient means of capturing public attention and support?

If you’ve thought about or done any of these things, you’re not alone. It’s likely that there are many other business executives who shared similar thoughts and ultimately chose not to pursue them. But a few still question why we shouldn’t use political tactics to build our business reputation, advance our business and get what we want.

Many companies recruit and utilize political talent in their government relations and communications campaigns. There’s a lengthy history of overlap between government and the private sector in the United States. In fact, when your company is attacked in the same vicious way that politicians, parties and government experience, it can be helpful to bring those political lessons into countering the assault, but you need to be careful how aggressively you use their political tactics.

Businesses and political campaigns have different purposes and measures of success. Most businesses are driven by providing a favorable return to their investors and having a favorable impact on their stakeholders. In most situations, the business intends to do this indefinitely. Things that damage the return to investors and relationship with stakeholders are considered threats to the company, including the company’s reputation and social license to operate.

business political tactics

On the other hand, campaigns are primarily about winning, getting your way, pushing your point of view and locking-in sufficient support to achieve the majority or plurality you need. Political tactics need to bob and weave to respond to a constantly changing landscape and they often use tactics that are vilified by the politicians themselves. While some politicians are very ethical and highly admired as statesmen, they still must win. This puts an enormous emphasis on shaping public opinion over the short periods of time needed to win elections. A politician can afford to offend some people to solidify the support of others and then conduct a campaign that variously creates infighting, alienation, and enthusiasm in different groups resulting in an election victory.

For most businesses, misuse of these political tactics could cause a crisis that must be managed and lasting harm to the brand. Stakeholder trust would erode, people would voice their opposition in government hearings, stockholder meetings and sales through word of mouth. While you can learn political lessons and even use political tactics to support your legitimate business interests, you need to balance this with conducting your business with integrity and a view toward maintaining a positive long-term reputation. Don’t sacrifice your brand, reputation, and stakeholder trust for a short-term, politically expedient fix.

political tactics

Well then, if it OK for businesses to observe politicians and campaigns to learn political lessons, what political tactics should businesses avoid? There are five political tactics that you should either use very sparingly or completely avoid in your business communications and encounters. They are marked by either being excessively confrontational or deceptive. They are attacking competitors, attacking reporters, attacking opponents, spinning stories to manipulate perceptions and deliberate use of fake news:

  • Attacking Competitors – If you attack your competitor, they will likely respond in kind. Also, you are part of the same industry, facing many of the same issues. If you tear each other down, who’s going to give you the benefit of the doubt?
  • Attacking Reporters – The adage of not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel is still true. If you take the time to get to know some journalists, you will find that many are very bright and capable and they are as dedicated to their mission of providing the truth as you are to making money or whatever else motivates you. If you work with them ethically, they can help you share your story. If you try to deceive or hinder their work, they will figure it out and report the full story, including what you did that was illegal, inappropriate, or unethical.
  • Attacking Opponents – If this one isn’t obvious to you, just look at the years of fighting between heavy industries and environmental activists. The more business fought environmental protestors the more effectively environmentalists used it to publicize their cause, raise funds and increase the opposition. Assume your opponents have a different, but valid perspective and open communication so you have a better chance of cooperation than opposition. This does not have to be a zero-sum game. it is well worth the effort to find a win-win and simply opening a constructive dialogue can reduce the damage.
  • Spin – Honesty and transparency matter. As soon as a company or individual spokesperson for a company becomes known for spinning stories, they are distrusted, discounted and marginalized. People and reporters are very astute about attempts to spin. Many perceive this seemingly innocent attempt to slant the story in your favor as deception. You’ll get far more understanding through honest, ethical attempts to communicate than you will through spin.
  • Fake News – Governments, hackers, fringe advocates and online “entrepreneurs” have successfully used fake news to influence public opinion, disrupt and make money. There are a wealth of tools, bots, and channels to distribute and promote fake news. It has become increasingly difficult to detect and it may be tempting to use fake news to promote your position on issues and your business. The odds of getting caught publishing fake news may even seem to be slight and you could always deny that you knew it was fake, but you can’t predict what future concerns, detection methods, and laws will hold for fake news purveyors. In addition, fake news has been further infected by bad actors using increasingly sophisticated weaponized media that can inflict major damage on a company’s reputation. Eventually fake new with weaponized media may rise to a major crisis that will demand everyone’s attention. Do you really want to risk getting caught up in this and ruin the long-term future of your company to gain a little unfair advantage now?

fake news

While we understand how a business may want to skirt around some of these issues from time to time. If these political tactics are used extensively they may ultimately be the downfall of the business. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule just as there was public support for Nero against the Christians in ancient Rome and territories that embraced Genghis Khan’s conquest, but they don’t last. For the long-term business, a reputation for honesty, integrity, and performance is very important. A significant reputation hit can damage a company for years. Why risk a reputation crisis for political expediency?

Sensationalize Sensationalism

Sensationalize Sensationalism

Sensationalism rules the day! Our world is increasingly driven by the need to sensationalize. We are bombarded by a host of digital stimuli that are perpetually activating the fight or flight response in the hypothalamus. We even appear to be getting less responsive to each event; quickly turning to the next stimulus.

To fill this attention gap and attract audiences, the media seem compelled to sensationalize everything to make things seem proportionally larger and more provocative. Larger or more interesting events get scaled up to ridiculous proportions, with a host of situations getting over dramatized and overblown.

All of this is compounded by the enormous number of false or misleading stories that are posted on social media channels. The difficulties in controlling or even verifying this false information are well documented. Much of this comes from people wanting to make a quick buck or press their point of view through even more sensationalism.

Perhaps more worrisome, much of this may be coming from foreign interests attempting to destabilize our society and economy. There is even reason to believe that foreign sources have successfully generated artificial social media attacks on local business projects just to weaken the companies and our business interests.

sensationalism risks

Concept of sensationalism problem in business

It’s our fault; we pay for, engage in, and retweet or post those sensational stories regardless of whether they’re known to be factual.  It often seems that the simple notion that it has been printed or posted is sufficient legitimacy.   For whatever reasons, many of us seem to be suffering from an ever-increasing need for different, new, provocative and sensational news.  The things that have already happened or only similar to what happened simply don’t satiate that appetite for sensationalism.

Now you may be thinking that this means you can get out of a bad situation by just keeping your head down and waiting for the next sensational story.  Don’t do that! Stories run in trends and you will be a proof point for the future stories, while subjecting your industry to even greater scrutiny and sensationalism.

Just look at Martin Shkreli  and how he helped ensure that the public is skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry. Or consider how Exxon was vilified for years after the Valdez incident  and Congress imposed punitive standards on the petroleum industry through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It took enormous effort and investment to improve the industry’s image.

On a more human level, look at Kevin Spacey,  who has largely kept quiet after a limited attempt to address his issue in the beginning. He continues to show up in stories about others’ bad actions and the entertainment industry’s responses to sexual assault and harassment.  Mark Wahlberg, on the other hand, took decisive action and should be able to avoid the taint of greed and insensitivity in the latest All the Money in the World scandal.

Similarly, Senator Al Franken after initially trying to manage his issues decided to aggressively address them and ultimately take strong action. Whether or not he needed to resign, he now seems to have the opportunity to make amends and rebuild his life. Sincere, meaningful communications can make all the difference in whether you have an opportunity to rebuild your credibility and reputation.

Of course, politicians and celebrities are different than businesses. Unanswered sensationalism can destroy businesses’ reputations, markets and even their viability. Despite their financial strength and enormous structural advantages, the expectations and vulnerabilities for a business can be greater. People are more willing to forgive or explain away the flaws of another person. An unresponsive, seemingly uncaring business might not get that chance.

Harassment – The Expanding Crisis

Harassment – The Expanding Crisis

The dreaded call is on your voicemail. A reporter is calling about accusations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. You have half an hour to respond, but they’re running the story with or without you. What are you thinking? Are you racking your brain trying to figure out what it is about? Are you wondering who it’s about? Are you trying to figure out how to explain? What will you do? You need crisis communications help.

Who’s the victim and who’s the accused?  Is it true? How do I know?  Is it your college buddy down the hall? Please don’t let it be your star performer who is turning around your business!  Should you have known?  How many have been harmed?  Could it be systemic?

Your public offering is next week. Are you wondering whether this will be a problem and if you can contain it? Is this material? Should it be disclosed? Are you limited in what you can say?

What do you do now? Of course, you should do the right thing. But, what is the right thing? How do you decide?

Let’s say you conclude that someone did something awful and you have to act. How do you do that in a way that’s decisive, compassionate and protects innocent stakeholders and your company?

Should you have tried harder to anticipate this risk? Should you have searched for potential problems and acted before they woke you in the middle of the night? Should you have strengthened your communication and training about corporate values and policies against harassment? How could you do all this respectfully while balancing other priorities without disrupting your operations?

Once you know, you must do something, but what if you’re not ready? Failure to act is also an action. Whatever you do, you need to think it through. But, what if the reporter has already called? You need crisis management help.

Think about it and develop a plan now, before it’s too late!

Dreaded late night call, tired and exhausted businessman having conversation with reporter

Uber Coverup or Crisis Averted?

Uber Coverup or Crisis Averted?

If you missed the news last week or already forgot about the Uber hacking and coverup, then the timing of the announcement worked. Ironically, the sheer volume and intensity of sexual assault news in combination with the many distractions of Thanksgiving week had the result you would expect; Uber was relegated to a secondary story.

It will be interesting to see if that changes once state and local prosecutors have time to consider the implications of a company paying blackmail to better cover up the hacking of more than 50 million people’s records. In fairness to the new Uber CEO, the October 2016 hacking, payment to the hackers in exchange for a promise to delete the records and failure to disclose all occurred before he arrived. However, we shouldn’t give the current Uber team too much credit.

There were probably legal requirements that prompted the disclosure last week. Furthermore, waiting until the public is highly distracted during a holiday week doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the good faith effort that improves Uber’s already tarnished reputation. What it does demonstrate is that most efforts to cover up and deceive ultimately come back to bite you.

If you are in a crisis and your first reaction is to hide the problem, then you are about to go down the slippery path of layering one coverup upon another until you can no longer manage ethically or in the best interests of your stakeholders. In fact, that’s usually when you go beyond a news story and attract the interest of the SEC, FBI and other law enforcement officials.

The coverup is often worse than the crime, and that’s why transparency can be so very important in gaining the respect and support of your stakeholders. Don’t let yourself fall into the coverup trap. My grandmother would have said that’s just opening the door to the devil.

Surviving Violence and Reducing Risk

The violent events we have recently witnessed serve as a reminder that everyone needs to know how to minimize harm if they encounter weapons violence. In the hope that it will help others, we are sharing a two-minute segment from one of our security training programs on the standard protocol for dealing with violent situations. Please share the link to our program with your friends and colleagues, courtesy of Corporate Crisis Group.

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