Tina McCorkindale, President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, explains the characteristics of disinformation that communicators should look out for. Tina shares what communicators should do to prepare ahead of disinformation including creating a crisis plan. Tina also shares valuable insights from the 2022 Disinformation in Canada report.
DOUG: I can promise you that this segment is going to be disinformation and misinformation free. But unfortunately, brands and agencies are dealing with quite a bit of it. So what is the difference between disinformation and misinformation?
TINA: Yes. So the difference is in the intention of the sender. Misinformation is simply just wrong information. Whereas disinformation is deliberately misleading or false information, meaning that the sender has intentionally tried to deceive the receiver into what the information actually is.
DOUG: So as a brand, I would think that they might require different types of responses, but also it may be hard to detect what the motivation is behind the publisher of that content.
TINA: Yeah, I think it depends on the sender itself. So if you are trying to correct a factual error in the media, sometimes that’s a little easier because you’re both working toward mutually beneficial goals where if you have someone who’s out to harm the organization or harm the individual, that’s where the intention actually plays a much larger role in how willing they are to change. But knowing that it’s false sort of places communicators at a disadvantage compared to if it was just a simple mistake.
DOUG: Is there a difference between the role of the communicator, say, the agency or advisor versus an in-house person? How do their teams have to look at that differently?
TINA: Yeah, I don’t think there’s as much of a difference between how an in-house communicator versus somebody who is in an agency should respond. It should be a fairly similar playbook that just depends on whatever the context or the situation is that comes up, unfortunately. It can be really challenging, though, because with the growth of technologies and the more people we have on social media, the more likely that disinformation can spread and very rapidly.
DOUG: Do you ever find and see, I know you do so much research, that what start might start out as misinformation suddenly becomes disinformation because people are spreading it because they saw it, what might have been a credible outlet?
TINA: That’s a really good question. I think that it definitely, there are cases where you can see it starting as something simple, as misinformation, and then it takes a life of its own. One of the characteristics of disinformation is that it’s designed to help get you to share it, because the more you share it, the more money I get from clickbait advertising dollars, and it helps to grow my agenda. But what can happen in some cases is it may start out small, but the disinformation machine tries to get you angrier, more emotionally engage, more divisive. So it does sort of enhance and that will encourage you to share it more and then sometimes it can grow legs and take a life of its own. So what’s as simple as something that happens to X, they may add more players or something like that to make it seem like, well, first this happened, but then look and see what this happened. So that actually happens often, unfortunately. And disinformation is just becoming not just more significant, but in our research, 69% of Americans said it was a major problem in the U.S in our disinformation report, we just released one in Canada, and they said 51% of Canadians said it is a major problem in their country as well.
DOUG: How do you determine or do you have any guidance on when senior leadership, CEOs should be involved and maybe when they should?
TINA: I think where they should be involved the most is having a plan set for how to deal with disinformation when it comes up and in the dark and different circumstances that it can come up. That is really important as a strategic advisor to decide when do we step in and say something or when do we let it ride. But what happens is if you don’t have a plan in place, like a crisis plan or issues management plan for disinformation, that’s when it gets away from you. And then I’ll give you a great example. I was talking to a colleague and their company had, you know, this Facebook post where they tell this story and it’s like a heartwarming story and it’s this tug your heartstrings. But it was about her company and how her company, it was kind of that take on woke,like woke CEO, woke Tech. And it was a made up story about how her company is trying to get rid of energy efficient whatever they’re trying to promote. I’m trying to keep her on the white label. And she said it was insane, like not even something that they would have expected and it just, people just flipped out. She was like, of all the crises that I’ve dealt with, that was the worst one I’ve had a deal with a long time and it started as one of, you know, some intention to get riled up and it just spread like wildfire. And in those cases, she said it had already taken off. And we were like, what should we do? What should we think about this? And by that time, it’s too late. So you have to have a plan in place for what would you do? How would you respond? How would you combat it? But a lot of that is pre building and making sure you’re a trusted information source for your stakeholders, both internal and external, and doing some things internally to help help with that.
DOUG: Yeah, that’s really interesting that you say that kind of going back to earlier in my career, you would want to be working with clients to think of, okay, what are your vulnerabilities, what might become negative issues and how do you plan accordingly or maybe even change some of your policies and approaches to reduce risk? Now it seems like it can come anywhere. So how do you prepare? And you talk about having a plan when things could be completely random, that nothing to do with your business but suddenly catch fire.
TINA: One is the listening piece, listening to what’s happening, not even just social listening, because that’s where a lot of it takes off, just because of the ease of spread. But also listening from an employee standpoint, like what are people talking about at the organization? Do you have a feedback loop where if you’re starting to get multiple people coming to you about what they hear? Because we can’t dismiss things now as being like, oh, that’s ridiculous. Like, no one would ever believe that because that’s not the case. And people do depend a lot on the source of information. And I mean, there is even, I was listening to the Daily and they were talking about what was happening in Germany with some far right groups trying to overtake the government and a lot of that was spread disinformation from U.S. sources. So what’s interesting and what’s interesting about that, what’s important, is that you have to make sure that you have a pulse on all sorts of different areas and that’s really the communicators responsibility. So then you could say I see this bubbling up or and that’s also on competitors, like what’s happening to competitors. Because if it’s happening to your competitors, it can easily turn around and have happened to you as well.
DOUG: It’s interesting and I know, you know, one question I have is, is there a role for government, for laws to try and be passed? Is PR involved with that? And maybe after this conversation you were for an appointment with Elon Musk. I don’t know how effective you’ll be in getting in the chat room or what’s going on at Twitter. But yeah, there’s always hope. But are there things that need to be done sort of in the political realm?
TINA: Yeah. So I have a couple of thoughts about that. One, you have like Section 230 of the Telecoms Act, which kind of let social media companies off the hook in a way for what content they include. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But in our research, what we did find is that when we asked people and these were not just communicators, they were these were Americans and Canadians, we did those separately on who they believed was most responsible for combating disinformation. It was government, their country leader, all the different aspects of government, whether it was for us, like Congress, federal government even said the Supreme Court, local governments, in addition to media and journalists. Those rose to the top of who should be responsible for combating disinformation. But when we asked questions about how well they were doing, there was a tremendous gap, that while people thought this person should be most responsible government entities, how well they were doing was pretty much garbage overall. And we saw that in a lot of different areas. But the expectation of our citizens is that the government should be doing more to combat disinformation and they’re doing a lousy job.
DOUG: Are there any resources within your organization that folks can check out? For more information or advice?
TINA: Yeah, absolutely. We have a really great repository of information related to disinformation. In addition to our annual studies that we’ve done the past few years, we just launched one on Canada. All our research available for free. We have webinars, we have different tool kits. So we have the top ten ways to combat misinformation, that’s from our Behavioral Insights Research Center. We also have another ten ways to stop spreading disinformation that teaches people how to think before they link and it gives a checkbox that before you share mis or disinformation that you sort of think about these different areas, like who is the source, what is the intention of the source, who’s the sponsor, what is, is it meant to, you know, invoke emotion or get you to be angry about something? Does it cause divisiveness or have you double checked the source? All of these sort of characteristics. So we do have a nice toolkit at the Institute for Public Relations and we’re happy to talk to people to give them some advice. There’s also some first draft was a nonprofit that did a lot of work and they moved to Brown. But what’s interesting is there’s not a lot of sources or resources out there for combating mis and disinformation but what we do suggest is media literacy, which is how employees can become better consumers of information and to make sure they’re well-prepared before they even get the misinformation or disinformation, because we’re responsible for spreading it Doug. It’s not like, if no one’s spread disinformation, it would just, you know, that would be the end of it. But it’s not. It’s us. And the more exciting it is exciting. Excting, emotion invoking disinformation is spread six times faster than just regular information.
DOUG: What is the role of employee communications, internal communications and transparency to help prevent the spread of disinformation? That can also be a challenge. Now, I referenced Elon Musk and who hasn’t these days. But you know, a lot of the information coming out that was negative for the company was from inside the company. So is there a specific role and importance in emphasizing a way to keep your internal employees engaged so they’re not part of the problem?
TINA: Absolutely. The first thing is for Elon Musk is to not disband your communication department. That was like one of the worst things that he did. And he’s done a lot of really awful things. But I think the becoming a and you mentioned authenticity, which is really important. Do your employees trust that what you’re telling them is in their best interest and that you have their best interest in what you’re saying is accurate? And those, it’s the same way that we should regard organizations, that we do one another, that if you want to be a trusted, reliable source, you have to prove yourself. And for internal comms, when there is disinformation, you have to be able to provide an outlet and platform but also that trust and reputation to where your employees can say, you know what, there’s things happening, we’re going to get a lot. And then that way that they know they can go to this. And there’s also other really cool behavioral science techniques on pre bunking and helping people prevent even sharing disinformation before it even starts.
DOUG: That’s really great stuff. And we’re actually seeing, you know, with our satellite media toward business, a lot more companies are using senior executives. And the fact that they’re communicating outside to the media, that’s almost more relevant and trustworthy for the internal team that they’re going on public record with what they’re saying, reinforcing what they tell them internally. Tina this has been absolutely fabulous. Thanks so much for spending time with us.
TINA: This was great.