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Managing incidents in a post-truth world

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

With the election approaching, Charlie discusses its relevance to business continuity professionals and how we should deal with incidents in a post-truth world.

As the election stumbles to its conclusion next Thursday, I thought I should comment on its relevance to us business continuity professionals in today’s bulletin. We will leave the consequence of who wins until next week. I was also inspired to write on this subject by an article in the Economist I read last night, entitled ‘Truth has been the first casualty of Britain’s election’. The gist of the article is that politicians throughout the ages have not always told the truth or have used half-truths or twisted facts, but this election has been filled by all parties with ‘big lies and small lies: quarter truths and pseudo facts: distortion, dissembling and disinformation; and digital skulduggery on an industrial scale’. To add to the mix of ‘facts’ and information, there is also input from those who are allied to the parties, but not controlled by them. They put out their own information or misinformation if they think it will help the cause they support. These allies send the information to like-minded people who are inclined to believe what they read if it plays into their existing prejudices. The most extreme iteration or as the Economist article reported, ‘weird example’ is the story which was widely shared among Labour supporters about Jo Swinson using a catapult in her back garden to try and kill squirrels, calling them ‘pleb bunnies’.

If we think about what is happening in the UK, and then look at the USA, the same partisanship is very evident. The impeachment of President Trump hiding the truth is under investigation, but the Republicans and Democrats see the facts from two completely different angles. The truth is, if you hear a fact which plays to your entrenched position, then you will be inclined to believe it, even if on sober reflection it is most likely not true.

So how do we deal with incidents in this post-truth world?

1. As a brand or organisation, we must build our supporters. This is so that if there is a story which is untrue or even if there has been bad behaviour from our organisation, there will be supporters who believe what we say and hopefully come to our aid and defend us. You also need to establish your organisation as a source of truth, so that if anyone wants to find out about an issue they will come to your organisation and can expect to find a truthful explanation of the issue. Vocal support is a very powerful way of debunking lies or half-truths.

2. Acknowledge that there will always be haters out there and that there are a constituency of hyperalert, woke individuals looking for an excuse to call out an organisation for some perceived failure in political correctness. Then there are the trolls who patrol the internet looking for someone to bully, and if they can come from a self-righteous point of view this is even better. When dealing with haters you must decide if you want to accommodate them, engage with them and challenge what they are saying, or if you simply ignore them and hope they go away, get bored and find another target. This is very much a judgement call and needs to be closely monitored. You don’t want your brand destroyed by a whole load of very vocal people who aren’t customers and never will be. If you see them influencing your existing customer base, you will not have the luxury of ignoring them, you need to actively manage the situation.

3. Listening to the election numbers have become meaningless to me. Ten years ago, in politics we talked about things costing tens of millions of pounds, or hundreds of billions of pounds. Now, 100 million is what the government finds down the back of the sofa and we are into billions and trillions. Not content with talking about one year, they talk about the next 10 years, further inflating the whole figure. There is also inflation on the cost of events, it has been reported that ‘waiting at traffic lights costs Britons £2b a year’. To me this is a spurious calculation, I have never been charged for waiting at the traffic light! Figures for the cost of things keep rising, and larger costs get attached to problems, mainly to try and empathise how big the problem is.

Just to note: the traffic light cost is fake news made up by me! If we are looking to defend ourselves in the media or on social media, the use of figures may not be beneficial and help our defence. If an organisation is hacked and comes out with a statement that they have spent £10m on security, trying to make a point that they spent lots of money and still got hacked, this may not work as the public are immune to large figures and have no idea if spending £10m is a high figure or whether it is a small amount and they should have spent a lot more.

4. My final point is that in this post-truth world, you cannot fight emotion with fact. If your organisation is responsible for the death of two members of the public then to defend yourself by saying how much money you have spent on safety and claiming this was a freak accident in unwise. Cold corporate-speak and quoting figures will always lose out to emotion, and where there is death and injury involved that emotion is always very raw and stands, in contrast to the organisation’s smooth spokesperson. Emotion must be countered by corporate emotion; apologising and empathy is much more effective than facts and figures in dealing with emotional events.

As business continuity professionals, we have to accept the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. Sometimes we see large brands and senior members of staff getting away with telling blatant lies and people believing them. I think we need to be hypervigilant to monitor the views of our organisation or brand, to understand the background noise and be able to very quickly identify where there could be an issue. Once we have identified there are issues that may be getting traction, we need to use our crisis communications skills to try and shut down the issue and prevent damage to our brand. I do believe, as my mother always told me, that honestly will always win in the end!

You might be interested in the following stories

Prince Andrew - How not to draw a line under an incident

“He knows exactly what he's done and I hope he comes clean about it.”

'So You've Been Publicly Shamed' - A Podcast Series by Jon Ronson

You may be interested in the following course

CBCI Certification Course (Good Practice Guidelines) course

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