Three Tactics to Stay Ahead of the Rumor Mill
Insight Piece by WBD Communications Consultant Brooke Davis
WASHINGTON – Shutting down false rumors is a key element to effective crisis communication. The internet can spark dangerous conspiracy theories, making an organization’s ability to quickly dispel rumors key tactic to diffusing false information.
Understanding how false information spreads is a vital skillset for a communicator. For example, dissecting the evolution of a rumor on how helicopters would spray disinfectant to kill the new coronavirus in Italy made its way across social networks and messaging platforms before mutating into varying informational strains around the globe.
The above article references aerial spraying in Miami during the Zika outbreak that sparked memories of fighting disinformation as the lead public affairs officer for Homestead Air Reserve Base. C-130s would position out of Homestead to spray for mosquitoes, and we held a media day to get the right messaging out there regarding the spraying. Still, we would get queries and Tweets with conspiracy theories the military was trying to poison residents.
Getting caught off-guard by not monitoring the information environment and being surprised by a rumor is a frustrating experience, and preventing this from happening equals effective crisis communications. Below are three tips to stay ahead of the infodemic during a rapidly evolving crisis like COVID-19.
Know Your Enemy.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Social media can be an overwhelming task for a communicator during a crisis, but understanding who to follow on Twitter will help keep you steps ahead of misinformation. Prior to a crisis situation, position yourself to receive information as fast as possible. For me, that format is Twitter. Follow known sources of disinformation and propaganda. Follow other agencies with missions to combat rumors. For example, if I did not follow a NATO LinkedIn account, I might not have caught the article on helicopters and spraying going viral.
Another tactic is to create alerts for known disinformation entities to notify you when a subject is trending on the internet. This has saved me multiple times from being caught flat-footed and not keeping leadership informed in as timely of a manner as they could have been notified of a developing situation trending in social media. My preference is to set up Google alerts for relevant hashtags for my current assignment.
Being part of the communications community, whether it be on Facebook or Twitter, will help you leverage expertise available to you at your fingertips. Responding to a crisis creates a fast-paced environment and puts the spotlight on the need to have accurate information quickly. Reaching out to colleagues for existing products will cut down time when crafting news releases. Or, if you’re in a situation where you are mobile, sending out an SOS to your colleagues will amplify your response capability. Communicators understand the urgency to get messaging out quickly during a crisis and will often drop what they’re doing to help you out.
When responding to an incident, I have often reached out to other communicators through closed Facebook groups or Twitter. For example, after meeting a colleague at FEMA while supporting the Nation’s Independence Day’s activities, I followed their Twitter feed to better amplify messaging potentially impacting the safety and security of our personnel.
Seek out Senior Leaders, Influencers and Politicians
I look at who senior leaders are following on Twitter and echo their footsteps on my feed. When I came onboard to support the Department of Defense through strategic communications, I worked to expand my networking with senior leadership. I also looked to connect with them on LinkedIn to see what they were communicating and how I could echo their messaging. During a time of crisis, you can learn a lot from senior leaders, whether or not they’re CEOs or general officers. Topics like resiliency, toxic leadership and leading in a crisis have all been trending during the COVID-19 response.
Follow leading investigative reporters as the have a keen insight into uncovering interesting information. This will help you stay in the loop on reaction to press conferences and will help you to anticipate how you need to craft holding statements and messaging. I follow influencers who seem to be ahead of the game, posting content that has not been officially vetted for approval. While this is frustrating for communicators working to get approved messages released, it’s important to be aware of what information is really out there so you’re ready when your phone rings with media queries.
Finally, state governors and mayors have been an excellent source of information through streaming press conferences and consistently updated, current information. In Washington, it’s important to follow not only the DC Mayor, but Maryland and Virginia governors. Following these politicians will help you be abreast of the next steps of the COVID-19 response and the growing drumbeat for how to safely reopen our country.
While there are many tactics to navigate the vast amount of information during a crisis, these three will help you digest a lot of content quickly. Hitting-the-ground running is the only way you’re going to be able to keep up with the churn of being a communicator during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about WBD’s Communications practices, visit our service page here.