Christine Barney
Christine Barney

Once upon a time, the world was black and white; we knew the good guys from the bad. At least we thought we did, and we enjoyed that clarity. We trusted our information sources to provide us with facts.

Technology now makes it easier for our eyes to deceive us and has accelerated the rate of “truth decay,” a term coined by the RAND Corporation. This gradual decline of the ability to know what’s true and what isn’t presents serious challenges for organizations worldwide. What is truth decay and what can be done to protect the relationship brands have with stakeholders?

O'Dwyer's May '19 PR Firm Rankings MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's May '19 PR Firm Rankings Magazine

First let’s look at what contributes to this phenomenon. It can be narrowed down to two trends:

Society’s growing hunger for the sensational. The expression “if it bleeds, it leads” has existed for decades. In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, the debate continues as to whether news media outlets overemphasize negative news to attract audiences or if they’re just serving up audience preferences. The sensational headlines known as clickbait are just a new variation on an old theme. About four years ago, I started hearing reporters ask for support in promoting their stories, because clicks were part of their performance metrics. Remembering that at the end of the day, most information sources are also businesses looking to make a profit makes it easier to understand why they mirror back the news consumers want. And the news we want is visual, dramatic and served up in small bites for easy consumption. The 24/7 news cycle creates a constant need for content, and the reduced resources at news sources means fact checking falls by the wayside. So, with less scrutiny, there’s likely to be less truth even from trusted sources.

Technology makes it easy to manipulate stakeholders. At a recent Page Society event, I heard RAND Corporation Deputy Chief Technology Officer Dr. Rand Waltzman make the audience very uncomfortable by showing examples of both simple and Mission-Impossible-like techniques to create news. The simple technique included clever editing such as a video cut short to show a brand spokesperson seemingly ignoring victims after a tragedy. Or consider the misleading copy from captions on actual photos like the hoax about the Sphinx in Egypt being covered in snow when the photo was actually of a miniature Sphinx in Tokyo. This sophisticated technique includes manufactured images and sound. Photoshop has been around a long time, but it’s getting harder and harder to detect image doctoring in photos, not to mention video. With fewer than 15 seconds of someone’s image and voice, you can now create avatars that say or do whatever you want. These deepfake videos were first reported in 2017, and soon fake celebrity porn was making news and being banned on social channels. In April 2018, Jordan Peele and Jonah Peretti created a deepfake using Barack Obama as a public service announcement regarding the danger of deepfakes. While the phenomenon of creating fakes isn’t new, it’s the realism of the evolving techniques that makes their impact more powerful. As artificial intelligence continues to advance, the ability to identify and control fakes will become even more of a challenge.

There are numerous examples of how manufactured and forced perspective erodes trust and impacts situations in everything from elections to healthcare. The increasing ease of these techniques is what has accelerated the rate of truth decay. So, what can ethical communicators do to combat this wave of misinformation and protect their brands? Consider these five guidelines.

Don’t blame the platforms or the government or expect them to solve the problem. We may shake our heads when news media run a hoax photo or if a social media platform helps a fake video go viral, but regulation isn’t going to make these issues go away and the platforms themselves can’t police the quantity of content that goes up each second. Expecting someone else to fix the problem means a very long wait. You can’t regulate your way to ethical behavior. But just like with anti-bullying programs, brands are in a unique position to put a spotlight on the problem and model good behavior.

Keep your head out of the sand. Don’t assume people won’t be influenced by “fakes.” We’ve spent a long time accepting that “seeing is believing” and it will take time for people to adjust to a new era where they can’t trust what they see. Take them seriously. Monitor and track attacks on your brand and be prepared to not just respond but anticipate.

Go on the offensive. Protect your brand by proactively telling your story to build a wall of positive perception and trust. For example, if you transparently and consistently put out video of your manufacturing process, stakeholders are more likely to question a fake that says you rely on child labor. Be prepared to fight fire with fire—or video with video—and aggressively debunk myths. Just being right isn’t enough. If given the choice between watching a two-minute video of a car on fire versus reading your brand’s press release on how safe your cars are in terms of fire injuries, we all know what people will choose. And think about clickbait strategies with your message. For a company focusing on energy efficiency, we saw a dramatic difference in response to the phrase “are you losing money” vs. “how to save money.”

Predict the future. Technology is changing rapidly; your job will never be done. Anticipate what could be the next possible attack on your brand. What new apps are out there that might present an opportunity or a challenge for you?

Make friends. Being on the defensive is always hard. But a tried and true public relations strategy still works today: have other people say good things about you, and the rewards will follow. So, ensure you have a strong circle of third-party supporters who can come to your aid, help tell your story and act as truth protectors for your brand.

Are the days of absolute truth over? Perhaps. But the news isn’t all bad. We too have more tools and more technology to use in the fight to tell our stories. Ultimately, in this new gray world, communicators have a bigger job than ever in shaping stakeholder perceptions and slowing the rate of truth decay.

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Christine Barney is CEO and Managing Partner of rbb Communications.