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Web Summit – Building Real Trust in the Age of Disinformation

November 7, 2018

As day two of Web Summit draws to a close, we’ve heard a tremendous amount of conversation and debate about fake news – as Sophie Scott wrote about yesterday.

Today our CEO & President John Saunders took part in this debate, joining a fascinating panel with Margot James, UK Minister of State for Digital and the Creative Industries; Ann Mettler, Head, European Political Strategy Centre, European Commission; and Hadas Gold, Reporter, Media and Business, CNN.

The discussion, as well as the news cycle this morning around the US mid-term elections across the board, got me thinking about the dual challenge institutions face today. They need to defend themselves against political, legal and cultural attacks, while at the same time rebuilding trust amongst the public. They need to be defensive and proactive at the same time. And their solutions need to address all at once a polarized political environment, the influence of business and government outside of national levels, and the unprecedented opportunity to mobilize specific population segments.

From L-R: Margot James, John Saunders, Ann Mettler, Hadas Gold

As we’ve counseled clients in a variety of countries on how to respond to this complex challenge, the following areas of focus have come to the fore.

Engage Young People

Part of the solution must involve engaging and mobilizing young people. This was something that came across in the panel debate John participated in today.

The younger population are more supportive of multilateral approaches to problems, and they’re also more likely to differentiate between facts and ‘fake news’.  According to the Pew Research Center, for example, younger Europeans are more left-leaning than older voters, but they don’t hold positive views of traditional centre-left parties. As a result, they may not associate with the organizations that traditionally defend multilateral institutions, even though they themselves are significantly more likely to support those institutions.

Young people also need to play a central role in the fight against fake news. When another Pew Research Center study evaluated whether Americans could distinguish between statements of fact and opinions, 32 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds correctly identified the factual statements as factual, versus 20 percent of 50-plus respondents. And 44 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds identified the opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26 percent of those 50-plus.

Use the Process of Reform to Restore Trust

Supporters of multilateralism need to use the reform process to create stronger institutions and help rebuild public trust. Simply put, the institutions don’t just need to be better, they need to recreate themselves in a more inclusive way.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for reforms that will refocus the UN on its core mission of preventing conflict. Similarly, EU leaders have engaged in an ongoing dialogue about how to make European institutions more effective.

But in an environment of distrust, these discussions often revert to opaque debates about rules and systems. This reinforces the public’s sense of detachment, particularly among those who feel that those rules and systems are biased against them. The reform process should therefore be far more transparent and open, with wide-ranging involvement from the public.

Leverage the Power of Communications

Populist movements have harnessed the power of social media to mobilize large numbers of passionate supporters. Defenders of multilateralism and international institutions have tended to rely upon traditional media outlets alone, and don’t always leverage the full power of digital and social communications to inform, motivate and activate supporters. Simultaneously, and as Ann Mettler so pointed out today, media is – and has to be – the backbone of democracy.

If international institutions want to rebuild trust, communications must play a central role in several ways:

  • First, supporters of multilateralism, rules-based trade, and shared standards on human rights need more clearly defined spaces – especially on the internet – where they can convene and collaborate.
  • Second, they should evolve a narrative that shows how shared values lead to shared positive outcomes. Populist movements are often powered by messaging about the threats to values, reinforced with tangible examples related to economic security, immigration, terrorism and other issues. In the face of all that, defenders of multilateralism too often talk only about intangible values that don’t acknowledge and address the fears or needs of their skeptics. This clearly needs to change.
  • Third, international institutions need to broaden their base of support to better include people in emerging markets.

Leaders in the BRICS countries and many other emerging markets have committed multilateral arrangements. Their support can be rallied in order to establish stronger global support for institutions that are currently under attack.


Web Summit – Rebuilding Trust in a Fake News World

November 6, 2018

Today has been an incredible day. Despite having been to numerous large conferences in my time — Mobile World Congress, Cannes Lions, CES, Dreamforce to name a few — nothing could have prepared me for the quality, depth and scale of Web Summit.

At a time of great uncertainty for industry upon industry and the world itself, Web Summit has a mission to gather founders and CEOs — including our own CEO John Saunders — fast-growing startups, policymakers and heads of state to ask a simple question: Where to next? The event is called the “Davos for geeks” and you really can see why, when 70,000 people descend on Lisbon for the week to discuss some of the most pressing topics of our age.

And the topic that seems to be at the top of the agenda this year is fake news.

I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between John Saunders and Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large of The Atlantic, this morning, as well as a host of other discussion and panels throughout the day.

Here’s what I learned: There’s always been fake news, a tension between the teller and the listener or reader.

Ever since the invention of language, stories, gossip, tattletale, belief, disbelief, lies and truth have been part of the human condition. In the 17th Century, England fell victim to the “Popish plot,” whereby lies about a Catholic plot to kill King Charles II led to the execution of 22 innocent men — fake news was causing devastation hundreds of years ago.

So, what’s changed?

First, the sheer volume of disinformation out there. Today, we are subject to an overwhelming tsunami of news. People check their phones about 150 times a day in the developed world, according to the Center for Humane Technology. This equates to once every 6.4 minutes in a 16-hour day. And more than 2 billion people use Facebook — which is staggeringly about the number of conventional followers of Christianity.

Second, there’s a profound change in the way we access information and news.

Here are some scary stats for you:

  • Research shows that fake news headlines about the 2016 US elections fooled American adults 75% of the time.
  • False news stories are 70% more likely to be shared on social media than legitimate news stories [NBC News source]
  • Young and old are susceptible: the oldest and youngest cohorts are the most susceptible to fake news — 41% of consumers aged 18-34 and 44% of consumers 65 and older admit to falling for fake news.
  • 66% of people in the US believe that outside groups or agents are actively planting fake news stories [com]

Third, much of the argument around fake news is about more than just whether content is true or not. I’ve heard a lot of discussion today about intent. Is a story trying deliberately to mislead? Is it imposter content or manipulated content, such as a doctored video or picture? Or pure fabricated content, which is 100% false. You only have to consider Deepfake videos that show an altered reality that can make it virtually impossible for viewers to distinguish propaganda from reality — this Obama example probably being one of the most famous Deepfakes in recent times.

So, what can we do? John talked today about a five-point plan to mitigate against fake news that I think is great advice to all of us — as communications professionals, as well as everyday consumers, voters, parents and (probably) concerned citizens.

John Saunders’ 5-point Plan to Fight Fake News:

Number 1: Break out of our bubble.

We all need to escape the confines of confirmation bias and shine a light on our unconscious bias. We should embrace the views of others and acknowledge the other side in our own communications. We should stimulate and participate in debate and remember that social media platforms only give us more of the same. It’s up to us as individuals to change that pattern.

Number 2: Support true news content.

One of the beacons of hope is the revitalization of quality journalism. Subscriptions to newspapers are up, viewing figures of quality news programs are up, new news services are launched daily (Axios, Quartz) or added to existing platforms (Buzzfeed). We should all support this. We should buy or subscribe to a newspaper (in Bezos and Benioff’s cases, they literally did just that). We should support channels and platforms that do a good job. In short, we should part with some money…

Number 3: Bash the bad.

We need to call out “fake” when we see it. And not just let it go. We should be offended/outraged — and do this vocally and loudly, not just accept it and move on.

Number 4: Find an authentic voice.

To be taken seriously, we all need to find our authentic voice. This may sound a little new age, but this is essentially work we do with our clients to find:

  • A clear sense of purpose (what we are for).
  • A worked through point of view.
  • The courage to express it.

These are essential qualities. They build an authentic voice — trusted, believed — which has the weight to make a difference.

Number 5: Be alert. But positive.

This isn’t going away. So, we have to pay attention. Be skeptical, but positive. Take it seriously and don’t let things go.

We need to remember the significant benefits that the rapid dissemination of news can bring, too. Just look at the incredible example of The Blue Planet (searches of “plastic recycling” rose 55% off the back of that program), which made a massive, positive impact on people’s use and attitude towards plastic in a small amount of time.


FleishmanHillard Named Agency of the Year by North American Excellence Awards

November 5, 2018

ST. LOUIS, November 5, 2018 — FleishmanHillard secured top honors from this year’s North American Excellence Awards. The global public relations and marketing firm earned the Agency of the Year award for its success in embracing challenges and exceeding clients’ expectations.

The North American Excellence Awards honor the most outstanding achievements of communications professionals in their field. The awards also present an excellent opportunity for networking and take a comprehensive look at communications achievements across North America.

The award ceremony will take place in Dublin on December 6 to celebrate the winners.

View the other Best Of 2018 award winners on North American Excellence’s Winner list.