What’s the biggest challenge for communicators in 2020? Online disinformation & public activism

It’s been seven days since all the optimism, the hangovers, and the excessive fireworks (at least in the Gulf). So, given our bubbles of hope were burst and then shot down in flames on the morning of the second day of this year, what should we be looking forward to over the coming 12 months?

There’s been some brilliant prediction blogs, including this one from Stephen Waddington which is as comprehensive as it gets. But I wanted to focus in on two big issues that we are going to have to deal with, both in the Middle East and globally.

Fake News Campaigns will proliferate

Fake news isn’t new – it’s been around since humans have been able to talk, write and read. What’s so special about now is that, thanks to the internet and our own inability to question what we see being shared by friends and family, it’s easier than ever to create fake news. There’s even a new breed of firms, “Black PR” agencies, who are willing to set up fake sites that look like news portals, create fake news stories, and then spread them online on social media via bots.

Given the state of politics around the world, with nationalism and xenophobia just two of a dozen negative trends that are driving agendas, it’s no surprise that news is being manipulated by politicians, to both boost their own profiles and smear opponents. Buzzfeed has put out a smart news piece on disinformation for hire.

My concern is what will happen when fake news and the people behind these campaigns begin to target companies. We’ve already seen some of this in the Gulf, given the region’s politics. There have been targeted campaigns against national brands, including airliners, banks and pharmaceutical companies. I feel this is only the start, and we’re going to see more fake news campaigns which are designed to blackmail. How many firms will pay up rather than face a barrage of negativity which, although fake, may convince others to stay away from the brand?

Will your social media people are able to respond quickly, spot the fakes, and mobilize your followers? Do you know what’s going on when it comes to fake content, how to spot it, and who is behind it? What surprises me is how few practitioners in my part of the world are actively researching this phenomenon. I’m seeing more work being done by academics like Marc Owen Jones around issues such as bots, trolls, and fake news campaigns. If you’re a public relations professional, please do your homework and start educating yourself about these issues before they impact you.

Public Activism will be everywhere

The second big theme for 2020 will be public activism. There’s been a strong trend towards employee activism over the past couple of years, especially in the US and with sectors such as tech (just look at Google). As people give up on their politicians doing the right thing, they’re going to increasingly call out corporations.

This trend for public activism is going to happen globally. I’m increasingly seeing this in India, given what’s happening there with the new Citizenship Amendment Act. And we’ll also see this around issues such as the environment (just look at Australia).

This rise of citizen activism is going to especially strain organizations that stay on the sidelines or organizations whose ownership is in the hands of an individual with strong views.

What employers need to do is 1) be much better at listening to sentiment, and 2) empathizing with views that are distinct from those held by management. There are far too many tone-deaf leaders out there, and they’re going to drag their company’s brands down with them unless they change how they engage with stakeholders.

Given these two trends, my one hope is that we start to prioritize listening as a key communications skill. It may not sound as sexy as content creation, or artificial intelligence, but the good old-fashioned practice of listening may just save your organization/client from the biggest reputational crises in 2020.

Photo by Jan Baborák on Unsplash

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