The Government Comms Playbook to Fight the Coronavirus

A lack of trust in what the government is saying leads to panic, fear, and citizens taking action into their own hands

This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.

The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.

Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.

A Single Source of Information

This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.

What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.

One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.

Multiple Languages

It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…

The Use of Influencers

This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).

Some countries have done things differently. Look at what Finland is doing. Read this from the Guardian.

Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.

“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.

“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.

Adapt Social Media

Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.

What the WHO has done with Whatsapp is smart. This channel is used globally, and it’s a simple and effective way of getting out information effectively via a chatbot. It’s also the place where most misinformation spreads (and we have no way of monitoring what is being shared here due to end-to-end encryption). Have a look at the launch of the service, and please do load it into your Whatsapp.

Transparency and Expertise Matters (Especially for Leaders)

My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.

Another must-read article was written by Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane for the Guardian. They spell out what leaders need to do to ensure that people listen, remain calm, and follow advice. If you’re in comms, read the piece. But needless to say, openness matters.

And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).

Avoid Conjecture

My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).

That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.

How Bad is Instagram Fraud in the UAE? Take a Guess…

How bad is fraud on the UAE’s Instagram scene? What’s your guess?

Fraud isn’t a word to throw about lightly. And not much has been said about what’s going on in a market like the UAE, where Instagram has become the go-to platform for social media influencers and brands. There are 3.78 million Instagram users in the UAE, which is just under 40% of the population.

Well, the numbers are in, thanks to a firm called HypeAuditor. The company has developed software that it says helps marketers root out fake followers on Instagram, with the aim of making the industry more transparent and providing marketers with the data they need to make the right choice about the influencers they work with. And given that spending on influencer marketing is now running into the billions of dollars globally, we’ve got to get better at detecting fraud.

For those of you who don’t already know, influencer marketing is the concept of brands working with people who have large followings on social media. Brands pay the influencers for posts, either in cash or in-kind. Given that those with the largest follower count (we’re talking a million plus) can charge 7-8k USD upwards a post, it’s a lucrative business. The more followers an account has, the more the account owner can charge. And there’s a temptation to artificially inflate follower counts.

According to HypeAuditor, more than half of influencers in the United Arabic Emirates use artificial methods of Instagram growth, including buying followers, likes and
inauthentic comments.

“Budgets for Influencer campaigns will certainly increase but brands should remember
that Influencer marketing without the proper checks and transparency will not work.
Large numbers of followers can be fake,” says Alex Frolov, CEO of HypeAuditor.

Based on HypeAuditor’s research, the most common means used to artificially boost followers include:
● buying followers – 31% of influencers allegedly buy followers;
● use Follow/Unfollow – 16% allegedly use automatic Follow/Unfollow processes;
● use comment pods – 8% allegedly use comment pods (a group of Instagrammers will work together to enhance engagement on posts by liking and writing comments), and
● buying likes and comments – 20% allegedly inflate their comments and likes.

You can see a full run-down of the research here, including an analysis of the Instagram influencer landscape and what is happening where). The report makes for a fascinating read, and should be studied by any brand manager who spends money with influencers in the country. Play in smart, do your homework, and let’s all tackle the issue of fraud on social media (including you too Facebook).

The Importance of Execution: Lessons from the Night of McDonald’s Giveaways

Any idea is only as good as the execution. Which McDonalds found out on Thursday

Now, I love my creativity when it comes to marketing and communications. Especially when it involves bridging the online and offline worlds. McDonalds should have come up with a cracker of an idea.

For one night only, the fast food chain was giving out freebies including “Night In” apparel and accessories, including McDonalds-branded loungewear, socks, slippers, games, and more. All consumer had to do was order their food on the 19th of this month between 7:00PM until 3:00AM, online, via the call center or an app. All the surprise items were to be distributed randomly on a first come, first serve basis while supplies last.

Sounds good so far. They’d also gone out and promoted the campaign through influencer marketing, as well as via their own social channels.

So, what’s the problem I hear you say? Let’s go back to what I first spoke about, namely execution. If you don’t fulfill your promise, then consumers will get annoyed. And they’ll vent on social media. And there was ALOT of venting at McDonalds.

It gets worse for McDonalds. You know a stunt has failed when the UK’s biggest tabloid covers the story with the headline “Burgers and Lies”. And, on a side note, the response given to the Sun left me scratching my head; surely they could have promised to deliver items to all those customers who missed out (the response is below), rather than focusing on those who did get free swag.

“Thousands of customers received a surprise in their McDelivery orders last night, however we know how popular the limited edition merchandise has been and are sorry that some customers were disappointed not to receive any. This was the most amount of merchandise we’ve ever distributed in the UK and Ireland so we are delighted to see so many customers sharing their McDelivery socks and more on social media.”

How to Prep for Executions

Getting campaigns right takes a great deal of planning and experience. But there are a couple of basic pointers to bear in mind.

  1. Ensure that you have enough materials/gifts to go round. Look at previous campaigns, tally up the anticipated numbers of people who will take part, and order extra so you have a buffer. It’s better to have items left over at the end and your customers happy, than leave customers feeling as if they’ve been cheated (and the same applies to people – if you need more people for a campaign, then bring them in and train them up pronto).
  2. Clearly communicate with your consumers and partners. With this campaign, there were multiple partners involved, including call centers and delivery drivers from different companies. It’s clear that some of these drivers didn’t know about the campaign.
  3. Update these people too with new information. If there’s an issue with delivery and execution, let your call center staff and social media people know so they can proactively share information/share the correct information, rather than sharing incorrect information and making a situation worse.
  4. Treat every consumer as a person. Consumers aren’t stupid – they’ll see how social media accounts are basically copying and pasting responses to every single complaint. Don’t do that – respond like a person, not a bot. Consumers will appreciate it.
  5. If something goes wrong, do your best to fix it. There’s many consumers out there who didn’t get any free gift on Thursday night, and they’re still writing to McDonalds. Get them a gift, and do it asap. A brand can fix any issue, as long as they act quickly, sincerely, and proactively engage the consumer. If they don’t, that consumer will be lost.

That’s it from me for today. If you have any of your own tips to share on executions, please do send them across!

Hong Kong, Social Media and PR’s Values – A Chat with Arun

I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.

I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.

Enjoy the conversation, follow Arun’s work on the Holmes Report, and share your thoughts!

Digital Manipulation: How To Fight Back And Protect Your Firm

Not all digital manipulation is as easy to spot as this fake image from Benetton. The ability to fake high quality content is widespread, and you’ve got to be prepared.

You may not know it yet, but you’ve probably come across content that’s been faked today. It has never been easier to fake content, both visual and multimedia (have a read of this article from The Guardian to learn all you need about deepfakes, or take a look at https://www.thispersondoesnotexist.com/ to see how realistic fake imagery is today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence). Combine the tech with the desire to fool the public, as seen during the 2016 elections in the United States, or in the 2019 European elections, and we should be worried.

What’s more concerning is the inability of governments (or even their complicity) to counter fake news. Combine this with the willingness of many to offer digital manipulation as a service, not just to governments but also to businesses, and we’re in for trouble. Especially if you work in communications.

So, what can we do to protect our organizations from digital manipulation? Here’s a simple playbook as to what you can do to both prepare and fight back against the fakery.

Give Your Brand a Social Voice

It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Communicators need to ensure their organizations are online, they’re on social platforms, and that they’re not just active, but actively engaging with the public. Build up an audience of followers who know your brand, what your brand stands for, and who believe in your brand. When there’s a crisis, it’s these people who will support your brand and defend it against any claim.

Look to Owned Media

Too many organizations have bypassed owned media for social sites, where we lose control. We’ve got to roll this back, and create a portfolio of owned assets online, be they websites, blogs or podcasts, which we control and where the conversation is easier to curate. In other words, switch our focus away from just the big social media sites and to owned mediums where we have the ability to build a narrative that isn’t drowned out by fake accounts, trolls, bots or others who want to drown out our voice.

Take the Crisis Offline

The third element to fighting the fakes is taking the issue offline. If there’s a potential crisis, we have to develop ways to validate what’s going on. That means responding as quickly as possible to an issue online, and getting someone to physically respond, to check if the issue is true or false. This could be for a product defect, a reputational issue, or any other problem that we may face online. Ensure that your traditional complaint channels are integrated with your social media, so you know what’s going on at every touchpoint, and you know what’s real from what could be digital manipulation.

Monitor and Be Informed

The final step is to monitor as well as we can what is being said about the brand. If something is incorrect, step in and address the facts. Listen to what is being said about the brand, learn to spot trends, and look into issues/content which seems out of place. Understand your communities, both your advocates and your detractors, both online and offline. Digital manipulation is easier to spot if you know your online community’s routines and behavior. In addition, ensure you and your team are keeping pace with technology, and experiment where you can with rolling out new tech (one simple way to do this is to work with academia; they’ll be able to help you understand technological developments, and what tools you can use to protect yourself).

If you have any experience of fighting digital manipulation, please do share it. I’d love to hear, and share, your experiences.

The Billion Dollar(s) Business of Social Media Trolling in the Philippines, and what it means for Public Relations globally

Social media trolling is big business in the Philippines. And that business is about to go global (image source: When in Manila)

If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).

As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.

Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.

Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).

So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.

If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…