Time to get inoculated against misinformation

Author:  Nitin Mantri, Group CEO at AvianWE, President ICCO & Past President PRCAI

COVID-19 has brought to the fore a problem that has impacted our lives far too long – an overabundance of false and misleading news, images and videos that we call misinformation and fake news, and for which the WHO has coined the term “infodemic”.

Misinformation is dangerous for the communications industry as it threatens to destroy our hard-earned credibility. After all, it is our job to protect our clients’ reputation and guide them in a world where the average person cannot tell truth apart from lies.

While tech companies are working together to fight the proliferation of false information, it is too huge a problem to be solved by one stakeholder. Curbing misinformation must be the collective responsibility of governments, brands, tech companies and the people. Communications can be an essential tool to help stakeholders connect the public with credible information and help them make informed decisions on what to read, trust and share online.

Here are five ways communications professionals can play a constructive role in the fight against misinformation:

Promote honesty & transparency as Guardians of Truth. Our profession comes with great powers of influence, and the responsibility to our clients, the public and society to uphold honesty and transparency.

As communicators, we must be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote and hold both clients and journalists accountable. We must work with only recognised experts – epidemiologists, immunologists, mathematicians, policy experts, to name a few – to bring fact-based, unbiased information to our clients and their stakeholders.

Everything published must be attributed to a credible source. For this, we must consider investing in fact-checking tools and technology like AI to track fake news to enable due diligence.

Fight for a free press: work with only credible media outlets. Public relations has a symbiotic relationship with the media. Frankly, we are only as good as the media network with which we collaborate. If media lacks credibility, how will we deliver authentic brand stories?

Communicators should do their part in restoring people’s faith in independent journalism by collaborating with credible media outlets. Only through a concerted effort by all stakeholders involved – communications firms, news organisations, brands, technology providers and users – will we help sustain a vibrant, authentic media and reduce the ill effects of fake news.

Industry bodies are also playing an important part in the fight against misinformation. ICCO is collaborating with the European Medicines Agency to address false messages and support the promotion of reliable COVID-19 immunisation information. The organisation aims to direct more members towards reliable sources of information, such as EMA’s website and official channels on Twitter and LinkedIn, to encourage PR professionals to make reporting misinformation a regular habit.

Curate information from trusted sources for clients. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, communications firms worldwide have been trusted curators for their clients, gathering and sharing latest updates on the crisis from reliable sources. I would strongly advise communications firms to continue with this practice and strive to become the single source of credible information for our clients.

We must also become more proactive in calling out misinformation about our clients. One way to do this is by directing customers to their official channels with clear, up to date information.

Another way would be for communications firm to act as conduit of information between brands and their stakeholders, ensuring the flow of accurate, timely information. Firms can build dedicated teams to liaise directly with the C-suite via weekly meetings or monthly briefings for this.

Help companies define & embody their purpose. Companies that adopt a community-first approach and lead with authenticity, empathy and transparency will find it easier to fight misinformation about their brands.

Purpose is no longer nice to have; consumers demand businesses and its leaders act with purpose. Leaders today recognise this imperative and are rising to the call. A recent study by WE and YouGov has shown nine in 10 leaders surveyed believe that purpose is becoming as important as financial importance.  

As communication advisors, we must help companies define and convey their purpose authentically and in a meaningful way for society. If consumers believe in the company and its purpose, trusting it to be responsible and courageous, they will be less likely to believe lies about it.

Amplify communications efforts by government agencies. In any public health crisis, a government often faces challenges in conveying its message to the public or answering burning questions due to lack of conclusive answers. In the absence of verified information or sources, people fall prey to misinformation.

Communication professionals should consider how they can use their gift of communications to support government efforts by creating and delivering powerful, persuasive messaging.

Think about one of India’s most impactful public health movements – the polio eradication campaign. The campaign, which was launched in 1994, got a fresh lease of life in 2002 when a top advertising agency was engaged to communicate a simple message: Do Boond Zindagi Ki (Two drops of life). Superstar Amitabh Bachchan became a brand ambassador, and the agency worked with the health ministry to roll out an advertising blitz across all mass media platforms. The number of polio cases, which stood at 1,600 in 2002, began to decline steadily. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the figure dropped to 42 by 2010. Imagine what a similar laser-focused communication campaign could do for the COVID-19 inoculation drive.

It Will Take a Village

As digital platforms evolve with time, the ecosystem of misinformation, lies and deceit is likely to get murkier. Today it is COVID-19; tomorrow it could be something else.

The WHO, UNESCO, UN, governments, journalists, brands, and communications firms will not be able to curb this menace until everyone understands how to verify sources of information before believing and sharing it. 

The bottom line – we must never lose sight of the infodemic battle. The world is all set to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, let us work together to get inoculated against misinformation.

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