The time when you could count on reliable sources of information for research, learning or personal knowledge, and generally agree on the reliability of the source, is long gone. In the social media era where everyone is a self-proclaimed journalist or expert, information, factual or not, is free for all. To add insult to injury, intense political polarization has created echo-chambers in which people with the same sets of beliefs will confine themselves and listen only to the truths that resonate with their own views, reinforcing their beliefs and polarizing the population even more.
Information sources that had generally been accepted as credible have been losing the trust of their audiences, either through bad journalism or defamation campaigns against them. One such source in the media is the New York Times (NYT), one of the most widely read newspapers in the world. According to a recent survey by Statista, 44% of Americans do not find it credible or are neutral about its credibility.
It doesn’t help that recently, the NYT admitted to developing a very popular terrorist story for their Caliphate podcast, solely based on the testimony of a self- proclaimed Islamist executor who was later found to be lying. The Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist never bothered to cross reference the stories and nobody questioned her reporting until the truth came out. The NYT did come clean and put a stop to the podcast.
But for one source that recognizes its journalistic lack of integrity for a given story, how many actually mislead their audiences on purpose? As it turns out, a lot. In fact, the Pew Research Center claims that “fake news” will only continue to proliferate exponentially in the coming years. They contend that “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers.” Feeling comfort in reading or watching news that aligns with our own beliefs, we happily share our finds with family, friends or co-workers, spreading potentially erroneous information like wildfire.
What is happening now with the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19 is a prime example of the power of trust, or lack thereof. In October 2020, Nature Public Health Emergency Collection published the results of global survey of potential acceptance of a [COVID-19] vaccine. 71.5% of participants reported that they would be very or somewhat likely to take a COVID-19 vaccine, with China being at the high end of the spectrum at almost 90%, and Russia at the low end with 55%. The study showed that “trust in government is strongly associated with vaccine acceptance and can contribute to public compliance with recommended actions.”
And what about trust in science? For the past decade, ongoing misinformation campaigns for political or economic purposes (“climate change is not man made”), the emergence of more and more conspiracy theories (QAnon, Bill Gates’ involvement in spreading the virus, etc.), or the lack of rigorous adherence to the scientific method by some scientists themselves (for example, the questionable treatment for COVID-19 claimed by a prominent and respected professor in France), have all contributed to the erosion of trust in science.
On the flipside, access to amplification channels and to vast audiences has never been so easy, and communicators can and should take advantage of this boon. If your social media friends become the authority, why couldn’t you? And so the logic goes. The democratization of sources has produced an abundance of communication channels that individuals, institutions, governments and corporations have used (and abused) with the intent of spreading their views or touting the benefits of their products and services. Nothing wrong with that as long as no harm is done.
And harm we can when we don’t seek the truth. One of the most covered international events of the past decade, the so-called Brexit, is arguably the product of campaigns of misinformation. Today, with a last-minute deal obtained, the UK still faces enormous challenges, economically and politically, that will continue to threaten the unity of their kingdom.
How do we, as communicators, take advantage of the democratization of information sources while keeping truth as our guiding star?
Fortunately for us, there are tools and methods available to verify the credibility of information sources. The Brigham Young University Library offers a step-by-step guide to evaluating credibility of sources through five criteria: timeliness, authority, audience, relevance and perspective. Other tools, such as MyWOT (Web of Trust) or Google ranking, tell you which websites you can trust based on other users’ experiences or on relevance and expertise of sources.
Not only do we need to seek truth, we also have a duty to tell and propagate it. So our role becomes that of an advisor to corporate leadership in promoting transparency.
Who Does This Affect and How?
This issue affects a number of audiences, including but not limited to:
Employees: According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID-19, 63% of people working in the private sector worldwide see their employers as the most credible source of COVID-19 related information. Ensuring communicators provide them with reliable information from reliable sources is of utmost importance. Therefore, internal communicators must position themselves as a trusted source of information within a corporation, not merely an executor of leaders’ orders. Listening to employees and providing them with the information they crave is becoming more prevalent.
Community Stakeholders/Partners: Similarly, 78% of those surveyed expect their employer to act and protect their employees and local community from the virus. This gives a mandate to public relations and community relations communicators to emphasize the purpose of a company beyond profit, through words and deeds. Portraying the corporation as a trustworthy partner will go a long way to gain the trust of the communities they work in or with. And it’s good for business.
Customers: Nowadays, marketing is not just about the product or the service, it’s about brand reputation. Companies that ignore the big socio-economic or environmental issues of their times will have their products boycotted. A marketer’s duty therefore is to not only gain deep knowledge of their customers, but keep the pulse on society to stay ahead of the curve and adjust their campaigns accordingly.
Influencers and the Media: As tempting as it may be to get coverage in as many publications as possible, where your message is spread does matter. PR professionals should be careful not to associate their clients or employer with media or influencers whose views may be radical and alienate their stakeholders.
Brigitte Fontaine, IABC Trends Watch Task Force Member
Brigitte Fontaine is an expert in internal communications and employee engagement. In her 15 years of working with top executives across various functions and world regions to keep employees informed and engaged, she has mastered message crafting and established internal communications as a strategic arm of marketing. A passionate advocate of the employee as a source of wisdom and inspiration, she has developed various initiatives to enable three-way communication between employees, leaders and the various communities they serve. Her prior experience in technical positions in the high-tech industry has given Fontaine a unique ability to convey the complex in simple terms to reach a large variety of audiences.