Group Gordon 05 Dec 2018 // 6:23PM GMT
By Michael Gordon
Our industry faces an unprecedented trust crisis. The percentage of Americans who trust in the media hit an all-time low in 2016 and remains under 50%. Public distrust has also extended to companies covered in the press, as 42% of Americans have lost trust in brands as a result of the current state of the media. And while two-thirds of Americans continue to get news on social media, they don't always believe it to be accurate. This crisis of trust presents unprecedented challenges. Below are a few ways the "Fake News" era is changing the practice of PR and the ways you should approach your work.
Universal appeal is not an option. In the "Fake News" era, nuance and neutrality are dead. That means it’s increasingly difficult—if not impossible—to deliver messages to which no audiences will object. While it’s always been important to be strategic about how and where you deliver your message, the former gold-standard outlets are no longer universally trusted or respected. With no one-size-fits-all option, it becomes increasingly important to prioritize your audiences and aim for the outlets that they trust. That can, and likely will, mean alienating some of your audience in the process.
Engine manufacturer Cummins, which operates in predominantly right-leaning regions, typically aligns with the current administration’s goals. But when Cummins stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars because of President Trump’s escalating trade war, it came out against the tariffs. CEO Tom Linebarger penned an op-ed in The New York Times and spoke to the Washington Post, both highly influential outlets that would embrace criticism of the administration and appeal to left-leaning audiences. His statements irked some readers and rallied others, but the existential crisis the company faced required action.
A strong social antenna is more critical than ever. While many Americans get their news from social media, it’s also the first stop for many fake news purveyors, where critics and trolls are emboldened to escalate, distort, or falsify information. That means viral stories don’t always reflect real news. Regardless of the level of truth behind a post, social media activity is critical for gauging when a story has momentum.
In June, a tweet circulated that quoted Harley-Davidson CEO Matthew Levatich calling President Trump a ͞moron,͟ days after Trump criticized the company for moving some production overseas. The issue? It wasn’t real. Nonetheless, the social media frenzy forced Levatich to put out a real statement denying the quote. For any brand, social media monitoring is essential to assess when a rogue tweet from a troll is escalating to a point that requires action.
Trust is personal. In this era of deep public distrust in corporations and institutions, people are more likely to trust people than brands. Whenever possible, put a person out front to represent your brand instead of issuing a faceless statement. The difference can easily be seen in times of crisis. Compare Ryanair’s week-late, impersonal response to a racist attack on one of its flights to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s superb handling of the racial bias incident at a Philadelphia restaurant earlier this year. While neither brand emerged completely unscathed, only one showed its commitment to winning back customer trust.
Showing your company’s human side shouldn’t just be a crisis strategy. Regularly telling personal stories that bring to life what your brand stands for, whether that’s through highlighting your employees, conveying the human impact of your work, or showcasing the personality of your leader, can help you resonate with your audience and build trust.
Discipline is at a new premium. The media loves speculation, and an ill-advised, off-the-cuff comment has the potential to drive tomorrow’s headline. That means ensuring spokespeople are well prepped for all opportunities with clear, factual messages and strategies to handle tough questions or tricky situations. If a spokesperson isn’t careful and specific about what they do or don’t know, they may become part of the “Fake News” problem.
Steering through the turbulence of the “Fake News” era is a central challenge for our industry, but with caution, courage, and creativity, we can deftly navigate these uncertain times.
Michael Gordon is Principal and Chief Executive of Group Gordon, a corporate PR firm based in New York (Twitter handle: @GroupGordon). Throughout his career Michael has worked with leaders in business, politics and the non-profit sector. Michael served in the Clinton Administration as spokesperson for Attorney General Janet Reno in the President’s second term and as a special assistant on education policy during the first term. He also served on the 1992 and 1996 Clinton-Gore campaigns. A former attorney with Skadden, Arps, Michael earned J.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Columbia University and his B.A.from the University of Pennsylvania.