The modern age of disinformation has its roots in PR’s earliest phase—the 1920s era of propaganda.
So explained Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice president for communications for Microsoft, in his keynote presentation Monday at PRSA’s International Conference in San Diego.
“History doesn’t always repeat, but it usually rhymes,” he quipped as he began to describe the evolution of the public relations discipline.
Using what he conceded was a simplified timeline, Shaw broke down the PR industry’s journey into three periods: propaganda, explanation, disinformation.
The first, “propaganda,” was embodied by tactics developed by Edward Bernays and his colleagues. Shaw noted that these early campaigns weren’t always scrupulous. He reminded his audience about Bernays’ infamous campaign to get more women to smoke, called the “Torches of Freedom.”
This was the era of white, influential men using mass media to manipulate people to benefit companies. Not an auspicious start for the PR field; Shaw said that period ended around 1970.
Shaw moved on to “explanation,” lasting from 1970 until recent years. This age of “explanation” was characterized by PR pros’ offering explanations and information to their publics.
This period was exemplified, he said, by the famous Tylenol crisis response in the 1980s, when Johnson & Johnson responded to product tampering that poisoned customers.
“They actually increased the value of their brand with how they handled the crisis,” Shaw said, noting that many PR pros have used that response model until the modern day.
The era of ‘disinformation’
Shaw said the industry has entered a new age—the era of “disinformation,” or deliberately misleading stories—and practitioners must quickly adapt to remain relevant.
He asked, “How do [PR pros] want to be defined as a profession?”
Shaw spoke about his own media consumption and that he once subscribed to so many newspapers and read so many sources that he could tell someone what he had read, but couldn’t remember where he read it. “Today we are all living this same experience on steroids,” he said.
Shaw offered four recommendations to help combat the spread of disinformation.
1. Understand the adversary you face.
“Trust in media isn’t going down,” Shaw said. “It is being driven down.” He argued that unless media outlets and their public relations partners come to terms with how people who spread disinformation operate, they can’t hope to defeat them.
One suggestion is to stop “carrying the anti-trust virus” as he called it, or to believe that by fact-checking a falsehood, you strip it of its power. He argued that when a media outlet repeats a bit of disinformation to debunk it, it often doesn’t successfully demolish an audience’s doubts, and for trolls and fake news propagators, sometimes the sowing of doubt is the whole point.
2. Turn off commenting systems.
If you don’t have a robust strategy for monitoring comments, Shaw argued, media companies and content creators should turn the comments off. If the goal is to prevent doubt, don’t give gremlins the opportunity to question your story.
Shaw argued that if you believe in your reporting, you should let it stand on its own.
3. Stop lending credibility to those who would abuse it.
“Conflict drives revenue,” Shaw conceded, “but at what cost?”
He warned that storytellers must beware having a “messiah complex” and believing that if you “ask such piercing questions” no one will ever believe in a hoax or lie again. Instead, he argued that media companies are just giving falsehoods more playing time and reach.
Opportunities for the PR pro
Shaw also argued that there are exciting possibilities for savvy communicators to fight disinformation if they are honest about the challenges they face. One crucial skill is storytelling.
“The basic art and craft of storytelling is the best thing we can do,” Shaw said. Where once it was highly prized to craft a viral story, he said now stories should be crafted to be “resistant to disinformation.”
He said this can be done by synthesizing complex information, showing more than telling, and investing in formats like video. Microsoft uses “explanimators,” animated videos that help explain complex stories that might be difficult to get across in another format.
— Microsoft (@Microsoft) February 22, 2018
‘Soft’ skills aren’t so soft
Shaw also argued that the ability to be diplomatic is more important than ever for a PR pro.
“Disinformation drives dissent,” he said. “We have to build consensus. We have to bring everyone together.”
He shared the example of the chip vulnerability called “Spectre” that flooded the tech industry and threatened the security of most PCs worldwide. “Competitors had to come together to offer patches,” said Shaw. Communicators were essential in coordinating that effort and even addressing the problem internally.
Shaw said that at Microsoft, various teams were telling him disparate things about the problem. It wasn’t until a communicator started to draft the blog post that would be Microsoft’s official response that the company’s different experts came together to address the issue in “one document of truth.”
PR pros will also have to understand deception, Shaw said.
He offered another Microsoft example—the artificial intelligence chat bot “Tay,” which was launched on Twitter only to be taken offline after the bot started to spout racist and sexist tirades. The story at the time was that Twitter was such a toxic place that Tay had learned to be racist from its environment.
Shaw said the real story highlights that PR pros have to be ready for online tricksters and trolls.
“What really happened,” said Shaw, “was a group of people in a dark corner of the internet tricked Tay into saying racist, sexist things.” He argued that if the team had been prepared for trolls to hoodwink Tay, the damage might have been avoided.
The power of truth
Shaw’s final tip was to have a relentless passion for honesty.
“Our profession was not always built on telling the truth,” he admitted, but argued there is no room for such tactics in the modern PR industry. “It’s OK to be wrong,” he said. “It is never OK to be misleading.”
He warned that trust in an organization won’t exist without heavy investment and constant care.
“For years I thought about trust as something relatively durable,” he said, “unless something happened to it.” However, he argued that trust isn’t like Newton’s Laws of Motion, but more like the law of entropy.
“Trust is entropic,” he said. “Trust in an organization or individual will decay over time unless invested in.”
To paint a vivid picture, Shaw compared trust to a helicopter. A plane that loses power might glide to the ground but a helicopter, without working propellers, drops like a rock. “Trust is more like a helicopter than an airplane,” he said.
Start right away
Shaw had two pieces of advice for communicators to start implementing immediately to protect their organizations and develop audience trust.
“Employees are your best defense against misinformation,” he said, contending that every company should invest in robust employee engagement “before you need it.”
His other suggestion is to invest in shared experiences.
An event that brings together stakeholders like employees, customers and journalists for a shared experience can help to protect your organization from disinformation. For Microsoft, these are industry events like the “Hack-a-thon” and other events where Microsoft can engage its audiences.
For Shaw, a good defense is a strong offense—and he asserted that every company should waste no time in proactively reaching out to its key audiences.