Combating Misinformation is Every Brand’s Purpose

MICHAEL CONNERY

By Mike Connery

What is the responsibility of a brand for tackling misinformation about fast-moving cultural and policy issues? And just as importantly, who needs to be at the table when brands decide what their role should be in these conversations?

These are the questions many brands are confronting — and will continue to demand attention from the C-suite in 2022 and beyond.

The tricky part is that unfortunately, for many brands the answers are far from clear. Whether related to vaccination, politics or another issue, combating misinformation often feels like the domain of government, and leaving the question of who “owns” misinformation within their portfolio murky at best. Is it the responsibility of the Chief Technology or Information Officer who must safeguard the company’s systems? Or the Chief Marketing Officer who must ensure brand safety for ad placements in a digital landscape awash in misinformation? Or maybe the Chief Operations Officer and Human Resources both of whom must intervene when misinformation causes chaos at the point of sale?

The result is a Tragedy of the Commons. All brands want to use digital spaces to reach their business goals, but absent a crisis directly impacting reputation or sales, few want to be responsible for keeping those spaces safe and functional.

Maybe the answer to who is the owner isn’t so murky after all. There is one place in the C-suite where reputation, business goals and public good directly intersect — Brand Purpose.

Misinformation is a problem with deep roots in human psychology, ethical challenges and technical complexity. No single brand or government can solve the issue alone. Instead, we must work together to mitigate the damage and impact misinformation has on society.

Addressing the battle between brand purpose and misinformation

Even as consumers and employees demand that brands become more vocal on a wide range of social and environmental issues, agents of misinformation are targeting these same issues to seek advantage on the global stage. To undermine economic competition or just make a quick buck on the internet by playing to people’s fears and prejudices. With these dynamics in play, a clash between brand purpose and misinformation seems inevitable. Indeed, it’s already happening.

Consider Starbucks, which has been targeted on multiple occasions by agents of misinformation as a result of its strong positions on immigration and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Or the pressure that all brands operating in the U.S. felt to square their political giving with commitments to democracy and the rule of law in the wake of the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. And as climate change becomes a greater threat — and a more polarizing issue — it’s likely that misinformation will stoke consumer backlash around corporate sustainability commitments.

Few in the C-suite are as well positioned to take action against misinformation than those with the relatively new title of Chief Purpose Officer. (Ditto Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer.) So, the question becomes: How can these newly empowered executives take action to protect their brand, extend their purpose and contribute to the public good? Here are a few ideas:

Understand the conversation

Conduct quarterly benchmarks to understand how misinformation — including synthetic media, bot activity and politically polarized communities and influencers — are shaping critical online conversations around DE&I, climate change, sustainability and other issues in your portfolio.

Audit your media

Work with your marketing and communications team to audit your paid media programs to ensure that ads are not appearing adjacent to misinformation or providing financial support to sites publishing misinformation and working at cross-purposes to that of your brand.

Create a counter-narrative strategy

Develop counter-narratives that get to the emotional core driving engagement with misinformation and weave those counter-narratives into your brand campaigns and corporate communications strategies to inoculate you against future attacks.

Develop scenario planning and simulation

Map out high-risk scenarios at the intersection of your brand purpose and prominent misinformation narratives. Develop response strategies and train your team to respond quickly through crisis simulation.

Coordinate with industry associations

Talk to your trade association representatives to explore ways that your entire industry can coordinate counter-narrative campaigns that combat misinformation and diminish risks for all brands.

Misinformation is a ‘wicked problem’ — one with deep roots in human psychology, ethical challenges and technical complexity. No single brand or government can solve the issue alone. Instead, we must work together to mitigate the damage and impact misinformation has on society.

The power in resiliency

In this effort, a key quality that we can all employ is resiliency — the ability to adapt and overcome new hardships and challenges. And what we need now is information, or narrative resiliency. The ability to adapt and overcome malicious narratives that seek to do harm to the public good.

Resiliency has long been a calling card for those working at the intersection of brand purpose and sustainability. So when it comes to battling misinformation, who better to lead the charge.

MICHAEL CONNERY

Author

Digital SVP at Powell Tate.

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