Archive for the weaponized media Category

Next-Generation Crisis – Weaponized Media

Next-Generation Crisis – Weaponized Media

Weapons are used to harm opponents in conflicts and wars. Throughout history, weapons have been so prevalent that they have become a metaphor for other things. All can cause collateral damage and sometimes even target the innocent. A weapon doesn’t have to use gunpowder or other explosives to be effective or dangerous. In fact, cyberwarfare, digital propaganda, deep fakes and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns are very effective weapons used every day. Digital disinformation is a form of weaponized media and so are legitimate social media advocacy campaigns. Weaponized media is the next-generation crisis confronting corporations and societies.

weaponized media

While it may not be immediately lethal, weaponized media can eventually kill off corporations, constructive government and productive societies. The troubling phenomena are how much more effective they have become and how quickly they spread. Weaponized media is cancer that can overcome you before you even realize you have a problem.

Impact of Weaponized Media

If left unchecked, reputations, trust and basic human civility can all be destroyed through weaponized media. Our society is ill-prepared to deal with the threat. Even worse, this next-generation crisis will likely hit businesses much more severely and sooner than any of us hope. Unfortunately, the challenge is so daunting that many simply try to ignore it. However, even a modest effort can help you avoid being a soft target. Here’s a quick primer on the challenge and how to begin a  3rd generation defense against this next-generation crisis.

outrage next generation crisis

You can see evidence of weaponized media in the dramatic growth of specialized news channels tailored to every political extreme, reports of foreign states using social media to agitate for social conflict and even the various sides of the term “fake news.” Just in day-to-day encounters, businesses are becoming increasingly susceptible to public outrage that often uses social media as an accelerant. Increasingly, the rules and approaches that previously worked are no longer enough. While current best practices can help you get a chance, they simply may not be sufficient to seamlessly overcome this next-generation crisis. In fact, in this next iteration, your business may be deliberately and maliciously targeted.

What Changed?

The environmental movement has been using activist tactics against businesses for decades. Over time businesses learned to anticipate, respond and often mitigate these issues. Now, these issues are more important to many of businesses’ stakeholders including investors and employees, so the challenge has morphed. This became clearer after the Starbucks incident in Philadelphia last year. Starbucks responded aggressively, but it was not enough. Rather, many felt the incident demanded broader societal change.

These issues, which sometimes appear to come out of nowhere, may just be the tip of the iceberg. They demonstrate the growing power and engagement of the public through the social media tools and networks that are empowering them. You only need to skim through these 50 examples of social media damaging businesses to see how one or more could spin out of control for your business. Companies are now struggling to respond to this changing landscape. Imagine the more severe impact if state sponsors, issue activists, competitors, or criminals maliciously bring AI tools against your business.

AI and Next-Generation Crisis

Not long ago we were marveling at the Google bot’s ability to carry on a human phone conversation. Now we are encountering deep fakes that are virtually indistinguishable from real people we know. I wonder if we will use other AI bots to filter through the deep fakes. Has the AI arms race already begun? A natural reaction may be to put up more barriers to interaction. Ironically, that isolation may make it even easier to use weaponize media against our business interests. This is certainly a next-generation crisis without an easy solution.

The bright young people at Facebook and other social media platforms probably could have avoided some of their recent troubles, if they had the benefit of more diverse experiences, skills, and perspectives in their backgrounds. Ironically, diversity for the tech sector may be to include more traditional, experienced perspectives. In a crisis, you get more wisdom from those who have lived through the nuances of a previous crisis and the full range of life experiences.

Years in the Making

There is evidence that Russian sponsored groups have already targeted businesses through weaponized media. Evidently, to undermine U.S. interests, they have already acted to create domestic resistance to energy projects. If you don’t believe that this could affect you, the U.S House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has reported that Russian sources took at least 9,097 social media actions “about U.S. energy projects or environmental issues between 2015 and 2017.”  With their AI capabilities and increased sophistication, imagine how much more aggressive other state-sponsored social media attacks could be on businesses in 2019.

Russia Weaponized media

A weakened economy or social conflict tends to reduce a country’s international focus and global influence. It’s easy to see why state sponsors would use weaponized media to undermine other countries’ institutions. This next-generation crisis allows state businesses to destabilize a country while simultaneously weakening a business competitor.

Governments aren’t the only source of this next-generation crisis. You should also anticipate assaults from hackers, terrorists, political activists, disgruntled employees and activist investors. Their growing sophistication and the availability of AI bots have truly weaponized media to maliciously target businesses.

What can you do?

The odds are increasing that your business will have to deal with this in the next several months or years. The longer you wait to prepare, the more expensive it will get and vulnerable you will be. If you wait until after the attack starts, it will be very difficult to overcome.

weaponized social media weaponized media

So, if the task is so daunting, why are we raising the alarm? Well, there is a lot you can do to overcome weaponized media, whether it’s social, digital or traditional. Even if the very brightest think tanks haven’t figured it all out, at least you can make your company a more difficult, less vulnerable target. While preparing for the next-generation crisis may not be as simple as only needing to be faster than the other guy, there is a bit of that.

What do you do? A good start is strengthening the same measures that you would use to overcome a traditional crisis and building trust with stakeholders. You want to build a strong foundation, so they will be more receptive to crisis communications from the company. Next, you develop multi-channel vehicles for communication. This ensures access to audiences, even if some channels are blocked.

3rd Generation Team for Next-Generation Crisis

If your adversary is using weaponized media in a digital environment, you should assume they may be able to deny you access to your digital countermeasures. In this next-generation crisis, consider what you would do in a massive denial of service or regional power failure. Develop channels across a range of technologies.

next-generation crisis

If you haven’t already done so, prepare for this next generation crisis by building a 3rd generation crisis management team now.  The methodologies may be similar, but the players of today have new titles, responsibilities, and perspectives.  You must bring to the table the right experts to exchange information, preparations and best practices. They will help you develop workable responses to the weaponized media intentions of any aggressor. Involve the most experienced responders and strategists you can find internally and externally. Don’t limit yourself to one function.

Develop defensive capabilities, plans and test your approaches and systems so you are continuously improving. Build alliances, supporters and your reputation so you can get the benefit of the doubt until you have time to respond. Then, merge that with as much media monitoring and analytics as you can justify. Use investigators and communicators to identify inconsistencies and develop countermeasures. Let the information inform your strategies and tactics.

A next-generation crisis management team will add to your knowledge of tomorrow’s risks and ensure practiced leadership. Use them to respond to the challenges of today and prepare for the weaponization media threats of tomorrow.

 

By John Ambler

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?

Corporate Crisis Prepper – A Ton of Cure

By anticipating and managing the challenges that confront organizations, a corporate crisis prepper can make the difference between success and failure for a company. To understand how, we first need to explain what we mean by a corporate crisis prepper or more simply, a corporate prepper. To get there, we need to discuss the broader survival prepper movement in our society.  For those of you who are not as aware of prepper concerns, there may be more to the story than you think.

corporate prepper

Ultimately this story will take us to preparing for a corporate crisis when communication systems collapse. Along the way, we’ll briefly touch on items that some associate with preppers, such as storing food, medicine, and weapons for extreme doomsday scenarios. We’ll do this because there are elements of being a survival prepper that make it easier to understand why you should consider being a corporate crisis prepper.

At various levels of intensity, survival preppers have surmised that there is a risk of the breakdown in the fundamental systems we’ve come to expect in our everyday lives. This could be as obvious and likely as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes or some other natural catastrophe that disrupts day-to-day life. It might last for a day or two or it might be weeks or even months. Just look at the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in South Texas or the continuing hurricane damage on Puerto Rico. In these situations, there could be a loss of power, logistics for food and other supplies, internet and cellular communications, and increase in opportunistic or desperation crimes.

prepper supplies

Survival preppers address this possibility by storing water, food, medicines, alternative sources of power, manually powered radio, solar generator and some include self-defense in their preparations. The extent of preparedness depends upon the individual’s level of concern and their individual judgment and available resources to determine what is needed.  Many preppers very rationally, objectively weigh the risks and take the precautions they deem appropriate for those risk.

Someone who has been through several disruptive natural disasters is likely to have a few days of water, nonperishable food, batteries and maybe even a small generator. However, another person who has lived through weeks of isolation with no help available may well take even more extensive precautions.

solar flare corporate crisis prepper

Then there is the risk of wider, more extreme disasters such as a coronal mass ejection solar event frying electronic circuits or a major hack bringing down our national power grid. Both are unlikely at any given moment, but the consequences are so high that the seemingly small risk is great enough to consider some precautions.

Then you get less likely, but still feasible scenarios such as a break-down of civil order or armed insurrections. Most Americans scoff at this possibility, but we should realize that violent revolution and invasion are more common than our U.S. experience. Even the U.S. has had major revolutionary conflicts in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, so with our limited experience, we still average a major event about every 120 years. Those of you who have studied probability may see this risk as somewhat comparable to the multiple hundred-year floods the City of Houston had in 2017.

revolution corporate crisis prepper

This isn’t to suggest that we’re going to have a violent revolution in the U.S. any time soon or even ever. It’s just that globally revolutions are relatively common, meaning that at any given time somewhere in the world it is a real possibility. That’s why the smart money occasionally goes to the preppers.

If you layer on top of that the enormous, unpredictable advances in technology, the growing international tension and what we have already seen in countries using weaponized media to attack each other, we can see how major disruption is possible either through a natural disaster, mistakes or malicious intent. This makes being a corporate crisis prepper, the hero who will be praised if a non-traditional crisis befalls their company. It’s also where a lot of wealthy geniuses are putting some of their money.

It might surprise you to learn that several Silicon Valley billionaires have taken a little of their money and dedicated it to providing a sustainable life for themselves if we have a catastrophic event that wipes out a lot of our infrastructure and support systems. To them, it’s not that they expect doomsday scenarios, but the impact would be so great that it’s worth taking a few percents or even a fraction of a percent of their wealth to mitigate and guard against it.

prpepper bunker corporate crisis prepper

If these bright, wealthy individuals can objectively justify some prepper investments, shouldn’t the same be true for a major corporation which could either lose everything or end up ahead in a catastrophe? This is where being a corporate prepper and a survival prepper overlaps.

Like people, corporations have individual identities that they want to extend and grow. This requires a certain amount of care and societal acceptance for corporations to flourish. Companies need to be able to protect themselves and survive hardship, but they also need to be reconciled with other demands. So, let’s scale this back for the corporate prepper to just the relatively likely scenarios in the next few years and see what we should rationally do.

In addition to your crisis management, relationship, reputation and crisis communications efforts, the wise corporate crisis prepper needs to assume that the company’s website and social media channels are vulnerable. As we discussed in our recent blog on weaponized media, your digital media could be attacked long before you even know there’s an issue.

Since you could lose one or more of your primary communication channels, you may want to consider supplementing them with at least some of the following capabilities:

  • Equipment
    • Landline – cellular service can be interrupted or overloaded, and you need another way to reach people.
    • Satellite phone – for remote locations and critical communications if other systems fail.
    • Shortwave radio – in dire circumstances, this 20th-century technology rarely fails.
    • Cell phone with encrypted voice network – to talk with key personnel and stakeholders confidentially.
    • Controlled and encrypted text messaging system such as Vaporstream – if other systems may have been compromised, you need a secure way to exchange information.

crisis prepper

  • Resources
    • Hard copy contact lists and plans – If you can’t use your computer or smartphone, you better have a backup.
    • Radio contacts and protocol – if you rely on the web or even phone trees to communicate with employees, you need this if your region loses power and phone.
    • Dark website – both to protect your commercial website from being disrupted by a crisis and as a reserve if your primary site goes down.
    • Access to a major press release network, such as Business Wire or PR Newswire – this is to better target audiences and in case your internal capabilities aren’t available.
    • Monitoring services such as Cision, Meltwater or more sophisticated analytics such as Synoptos  – you need to know what is happening and how to counter.
    • An outside PR firm – to help you quickly scale up to challenges confronting your business and even take over if your own people are not able to respond.

A corporate crisis prepper who has the right mix of this equipment will have the basic ability to communicate with employees and stakeholders if they lose other channels such as internet and intranet through a widespread loss of power or denial of service. Of course, you will still be very limited in your ability to combat misinformation or attacks on your business unless you can quickly mobilize support to understand what is happening, appropriately respond and get your message out. That’s why a corporate crisis prepper will likely secure most, if not all, of the resources shown above.

In future blogs, we will delve more deeply into these individual tools and resources, but for the moment we just want to encourage you to anticipate risks and begin to marshal the capabilities necessary to respond to them.

Contact Us

Phone: +1.833.227.4747

Email: info@corporatecrisisgroup.com

Address: 405 Main Street, Suite 730
Houston, Texas 77002