Rules and roles of communications in Digital age

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighters was “out of control.”

Hours after his tweet, Lockheed’s stock fell 2.5%, lowering the company’s valuation by almost $4 billion. Lockheed competitor Boeing saw its stock rise 0.7%.

However, with no new news on the program offered, and with the planes entering service, the president-elect created his own news. Using Twitter, he published it himself and moved the market, all without having to communicate through traditional media that, per the old rules, would have included a response from Lockheed, perhaps defending the cost of its plane.

By the time Lockheed responded with a defensive press release—a tool from an age now gone by—the trend had been established, the trades made, and the damage to Lockheed’s stock done.

Anyone has been able to become a publisher of news (real or fake) using tools accessible to all, over the last decade.

Everyone can broadcast via a variety of channels, most notably social media – a major change in the way information is disseminated, consumed, and used in society. Many businesses are yet to understand and respond to its ramifications.

This trend is becoming qualitatively different from previous incarnations of self-publishing.

·         Far more instances of fake news

·         More people are taking it seriously

·         Social media – voters in both parties seemingly consumed content that primarily reflected their own echo-chamber view

Thus, fake news through rapid sharing by like-minded audiences are spreading.

Business news, fake or real, is generating immediate reaction just as political news.

Today, there are hundreds of news sites on the internet, many highly partisan with little regard for those rules and norms, as news and opinion are distributed through social media channels with no editorial filter.

Facebook and other social media platforms are now recognized as the primary information source for many people.

No one at Facebook or Twitter—no human editor—decides what information gets posted on the platform or, conversely, what does not.
Algorithms decide what news or information is included in an individual’s Facebook feed considering,


1.    Source 

2.    Originated when     

3.    Content          

4.    Interactions with the content

There is no mechanism for determining accuracy or truthfulness, a fact that in early January 2016 led Facebook to hire Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchorperson, as director for news partnerships.

However later, Brown had no role in making editorial decisions. It was humanly impossible due to information overload.

Compounding this lack of vetting is the way in which well-meaning social media users on both sides of the political spectrum instantly share information with friends and allies without fact-checking.

This, in many ways, can be even more damaging as, once shared, the information, and the person who has shared it, gains a spurious authenticity, leading the next person down the receiving line to trust it as well.                                                           

People and groups can take advantage of the neutrality that news algorithms bring for many purposes, including making a profit.                                                                

Individuals can make thousands of dollars setting up news sites to attract ads through platforms like Google AdSense.                                        

And the more sensational, and therefore clickable, the news on the site, the more money it makes. Truth, accuracy, and fairness do not enter the equation.

Negative in business, this evolution has enabled social and financial shareholder activists, should they choose, to shred management reputations without having to get past the hurdles of editors at The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times.

Indeed, using social media and setting up dedicated campaign websites have become standard operating procedures for activist investors seeking to change or influence management or company strategies, even as Twitter is becoming an increasingly important conduit for financial information, with many companies releasing their results there first.

Not surprisingly, activists have used Twitter to launch and conduct lengthy campaigns against companies they have ‘’shorted’’.                                                                                                      

Carl Icahn, who amassed more than 325,000 followers since first tweeting about Dell in June 2013.

Companies need to understand that communications tools and rules have changed or risk becoming vulnerable. To influence, the narrative about them, all businesses need to up their communications game with shareholders, employees, and the public. In effect, they need to become publishers.

How businesses can respond – A truth about communications has not changed: if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you. Today, more than ever before, it is essential for businesses,

·         Control own narrative

·         Tell own story quickly, before they are put in a defensive position

·         Responding to stories, not driving them

GE made a conscious decision to turn on the digital taps during the 2008 financial crisis and never looked back – launched digital channels filled with engaging, strategic stories about technology innovation and business dynamics—changing its narrative from appliances and light bulbs to leadership in digital infrastructure.                      

Importantly, it used and expanded those same channels so that on rainy days it could diplomatically punch back against critics and the press, when needed, to set the record straight on an array of hot-button issues swarmed by incorrect facts, including its tax bill, Hudson River dredging, the health of GE Capital, its competing F-35 jet engine, its investments in U.S. job creation and more.

Leverage your corporate blog – blog allows a company to write at any length about any issue that it believes needs addressing. Also serve as a website anchor. Links to other resources containing information and data a company’s stakeholders need in order to understand the real story.

That story can then be shared on social media or referenced in the comment section of other blogs and other social media platforms.

Your digital channels – channels be well-stocked with content through frequent posts. Establishing a reputation for transparency and authenticity with your target audience and becoming known as a trustworthy and reliable information source in your sector. This will make you less vulnerable to mischievous misinformation and make your stakeholders and the public.  

Usually, too late to get out in front of the narrative when crisis arises. With a robust digital infrastructure already in place, there is a built-in audience ready to hear your viewpoint on a hot issue. Importantly, because these channels are already filled with rich content about the positive side of your work, they will be addressing any contentious issue in a digital environment surrounded by positive messages, not in a “red alert” crisis press release or crisis website.

Use search engine optimization – Some fake news sites leverage the viral nature of social media to drive a high number of shares. This, in turn, leads to high search engine rankings. Companies need to develop a volume of content, optimized to pull in links from reputable sources, for improving own content’s ranking and pushing the fake news off the first page of search engine results.

Engage with influencers – more measured, thoughtful, and cognizant of preserving their own reputation and influence. They will not share something not verified. They possess a high degree of trust with their audiences, they can cast a halo effect over your message. Identify key influencers in your sphere and engage with them honestly and transparently for during a crisis, they will be inclined to accept (and share) your point of view.

Don’t let your foot off the gas pedal – Once a hot-button issue is out of the headlines, common mistake is to dial back on content and engagement. Negative stories never really die online. One can re-ignite a fire assumed to be long doused. Therefore, be on a constant lookout for the resurfacing of negative stories.

You know the Boy Scout’s oath: “Be prepared.” When a crisis rears its head—an activist or competitive attack is launched or a seemingly benign financial or management event occurs—and the storm clouds begin to gather, rightly or wrongly, on Twitter/Facebook/blog/news story, leaders to have response in place.                  

That will allow them to act quickly, 24/7, not just during banking hours, knowing that social media never sleeps. You must leverage channels and relationships that already have been established, responding in a way calibrated to the strength of the storm; overreaction is just as bad as no reaction.
And your response must be diplomatic, so your message is taken as informational and educational, not defensive.

There is much to learn about the evolving communications landscape. And, not a lot of time in which to learn it, but having a comprehensive communications and engagement strategy is essential where 140 characters can have a multi-billion-dollar impact.

Suresh Shah, Pathfinders Enterprise


My thoughts in writing this, are inspited by writes of Edward Reill, global CEO of the strategic communications segment at FTI Consulting and contributor to FTI Journal.

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