What's the biggest challenge for communicators in 2020? Online disinformation & public activism

It’s been seven days since all the optimism, the hangovers, and the excessive fireworks (at least in the Gulf). So, given our bubbles of hope were burst and then shot down in flames on the morning of the second day of this year, what should we be looking forward to over the coming 12 months?

There’s been some brilliant prediction blogs, including this one from Stephen Waddington which is as comprehensive as it gets. But I wanted to focus in on two big issues that we are going to have to deal with, both in the Middle East and globally.

Fake News Campaigns will proliferate

Fake news isn’t new – it’s been around since humans have been able to talk, write and read. What’s so special about now is that, thanks to the internet and our own inability to question what we see being shared by friends and family, it’s easier than ever to create fake news. There’s even a new breed of firms, “Black PR” agencies, who are willing to set up fake sites that look like news portals, create fake news stories, and then spread them online on social media via bots.

Given the state of politics around the world, with nationalism and xenophobia just two of a dozen negative trends that are driving agendas, it’s no surprise that news is being manipulated by politicians, to both boost their own profiles and smear opponents. Buzzfeed has put out a smart news piece on disinformation for hire.

My concern is what will happen when fake news and the people behind these campaigns begin to target companies. We’ve already seen some of this in the Gulf, given the region’s politics. There have been targeted campaigns against national brands, including airliners, banks and pharmaceutical companies. I feel this is only the start, and we’re going to see more fake news campaigns which are designed to blackmail. How many firms will pay up rather than face a barrage of negativity which, although fake, may convince others to stay away from the brand?

Will your social media people are able to respond quickly, spot the fakes, and mobilize your followers? Do you know what’s going on when it comes to fake content, how to spot it, and who is behind it? What surprises me is how few practitioners in my part of the world are actively researching this phenomenon. I’m seeing more work being done by academics like Marc Owen Jones around issues such as bots, trolls, and fake news campaigns. If you’re a public relations professional, please do your homework and start educating yourself about these issues before they impact you.

Public Activism will be everywhere

The second big theme for 2020 will be public activism. There’s been a strong trend towards employee activism over the past couple of years, especially in the US and with sectors such as tech (just look at Google). As people give up on their politicians doing the right thing, they’re going to increasingly call out corporations.

This trend for public activism is going to happen globally. I’m increasingly seeing this in India, given what’s happening there with the new Citizenship Amendment Act. And we’ll also see this around issues such as the environment (just look at Australia).

This rise of citizen activism is going to especially strain organizations that stay on the sidelines or organizations whose ownership is in the hands of an individual with strong views.

What employers need to do is 1) be much better at listening to sentiment, and 2) empathizing with views that are distinct from those held by management. There are far too many tone-deaf leaders out there, and they’re going to drag their company’s brands down with them unless they change how they engage with stakeholders.

Given these two trends, my one hope is that we start to prioritize listening as a key communications skill. It may not sound as sexy as content creation, or artificial intelligence, but the good old-fashioned practice of listening may just save your organization/client from the biggest reputational crises in 2020.

My 2018 Predictions and Hopes for the PR & Communications Function (Part 2)

crystal-ball-ss-1920

Continuing from my predictions yesterday, here’s my top four list for how I hope the industry can improve in 2018 (image source: http://www.marketingland.com)

This is part two of my 2018 wish list (I’d rather not call it a resolution list, as we all know how resolutions end up). These points underline how I think we can move forward as a function and become better as an industry. Here we go.

My Hopes for 2018

  1. Gender Equality – 2017 was a defining year for gender equality, with campaigns such as #MeToo underlining how much still needs to be done for women to have parity with men in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, these campaigns passed over much of the Middle East, with little discussion of sexual discrimination. With others leading by example and not just words (Iceland is the first country in the world where companies with 25 or more employees now need to get government certification to prove that they offer equal pay for work of equal value), will 2018 be the year when the industry promotes gender equality? Some agencies have already begun; following her appointment as the new CEO for MEMAC Ogilvy in September, John Seifert, Ogilvy’s worldwide chief, said Patou Nuytemans would be “a real agent of change” for the company. “Patou is one of our boldest and bravest leaders,” Seifert said. “She will be a brilliant role model for a whole pipeline of young female talent who will become the leaders in our business.” I’m hoping for more positive change for all the women working in our industry.
  2. Merit-Based Hiring I’ve talked about merit-based hiring before, and the damage that is being done to the industry by unsustainable practices, especially hiring based on nationality. We’re already facing a hiring crisis in cities such as Abu Dhabi and Doha when it comes to government entities and communications roles; there’s not enough experienced nationals to fill these roles, and expats are often only offered one-year contracts, which just isn’t good enough to attract the right talent.  Both the private and the public sectors need to work together to understand how to create a long-term plan that encourages Arab nationals to join the industry/function. Governments also need to appreciate the importance of diversity in their communications function, especially when communicating with a diverse range of stakeholders (and communications leaders in the government sector, especially expats, need to start speaking truth to power). We’ve got to move away from quotas/filling roles with certain groups, and think differently to ensure that we have the right people in the right roles. Only then will communications be valued and used as much as it needs to be.
  3. Promotion of Arab talent – We’re facing a shortage of Arabic language natives in the industry. This has been exacerbated by challenges in bringing Syrians into the industry (Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians make up the vast majority of talent in the industry who can read, speak and write Arabic fluently). With the Eastern Gulf facing its own issues due to a focus on English-language across education systems and at home, the PR industry has to address the Arab talent question. It needs to do more with universities across the region and prioritize promoting communications and public relations as a viable career option for Arab nationals. The industry also needs more Arab national role models who are willing to step up and act as role models for others (considering how many agencies and communications professionals there are in the region, there are simply not enough visible leaders and mentors, both from the wider Arab world and especially from the Gulf). Let’s hope 2018 is a good year for Arab talent.
  4. Better Government Engagement – The past couple of years have seen a transformation in terms of how governments in the region communicate with their stakeholders. Government leaders are online, on social media, and they’re actively pushing out communication. This year is transformational for two countries in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the introduction of tax. As the American saying goes, taxation leads to representation. This may not be the case in the Gulf region with the expatriates, but now that we have a proper taxation system in place, there will be more questions from expats especially as to where the money is being used. More transparency and engagement from the region’s governments will go a long way to building trust with the public. If governments are going to continue improving how they communicate, they’ll need a more diverse set of communicators, both in-house and agency-side (see point 2).

There you have it, that’s my wish list for what I’d like to see the industry doing this year. Do you agree, and do you have any more you’d like to add? As always, I’d like to hear from you.