Many in industry and government get attacked quite often by activists or journalists with claims and allegations that are often outrageous, slanderous or simply ridiculous. As facts don’t matter and evidence is not necessary for those with an agenda, how you respond is the essential means to shape the public perception and trust of you or your organisation. Watching the slow-moving train wreck that was the FIFA press conference yesterday morning (at the beginning of their congress when many of its delegates and seven high-ranking officials were arrested on corruption charges), I realised that it is time to go back to school.
Let’s assume that someone says something bad about the Risk-Monger (for hypothetical purposes because this obviously never happens).
“Mr Monger: you are a total liar who fabricates stories, misrepresents other views and only wants to hurt those trying to save the planet and the public health of mothers and babies! You are a lobbyist in the paid pocket of big industry, chemical companies and that evil Monsanto!”
Ouch! That hurts me personally so I had better do something. There are seven possible responses I could take, and all seven of them would shape the perceptions and trust differently.
- Deny, deny, deny!
This is the normal emotional response (nobody likes false accusations), and it is also the worst approach to take. If I would reply as follows: “I am not a liar, I have never lied and I would never consider hurting mothers and babies. I categorically deny that I am a lobbyist paid by big industry and especially not Monsanto!” would I sound like Mother Teresa or would people conclude: “That Mr Monger is definitely a liar!” Denial further implants the perception of guilt (what I have called the “I don’t beat my wife syndrome”) and diminishes trust. How could you trust someone who is always responding to criticisms? NGO activists know this and must find it hilarious that they can always lead industry officials into this perception trap. Note that it is not just people or companies – technologies have also lost trust due to the denial trap. For the first decade, green biotech researchers spent most of their time denying that GMOs poison people, kill monarch butterflies, reduce resistance to antibiotics, create superweeds, contaminate conventional crops, reduce biodiversity and destroy the wealth of seed varieties. All of those years of denial left little room for trust-building. Today biotech companies are denying the need to label their products … talk about dropping your pants in public.
- Say nothing
If you are trusted and people who respect you know you are not a liar, then rising above the fray is a good position to take. This is why environmental activists (and what I have referred to as NITS) don’t engage in dialogue with people who have information or evidence that would question their legitimacy (I used to call these “facts” until I realised that in the trust game, facts don’t matter). But if you are not trusted, then saying nothing will come across as acting superior, aloof and without care for the consequences of your actions. The activists know that your silence also allows for a sustained campaign, further trust beating and an eventual capitulation to their relentless attacks. Just ask Nestlé, P&G and Mattel if saying nothing was a good strategy with Greenpeace’s silly sustainable palm campaign. Time is simply more fodder for their fundraisers.
- Say that you have no comment
Of course you have a comment, but by saying you have no comment, you might as well paste an “I’m a great big liar” sign across your chest. Only two cases where “No comment” might be effective: if everyone knows you are being ironic or sarcastic (think “House of Cards”, UK version); or if there is a court case against the accuser (see Point 5 below or the game DG Santé has been playing in fluffing the implications of their neonicotinoid nightmare).
- Attack the person making the claim
Down on the farm, we had an expression: “If you are going to wrestle a pig, prepare to get muddy”. But is engaging a bully at his game the most professional approach? The person criticising you has as many skeletons in his or her closet, but attacking a hypocrite does not make you a better person. It might make you feel better to highlight the injustice of the situation, but you will hardly be able to gain sympathy with so much mud on your hands, and the stench of association with the original charges will linger long after that good feeling of payback dissipates.
- Take the accuser to court
You have every right to take a liar to court for slander (and you will likely gain a symbolic win). Although it might make you feel better for a while, by confronting an environmental campaigner who pretends to defend nature and human health against “the system”, you will be seen in the court of public opinion as the person who has just “shot Bambi”. You will also give an added microphone to your attacker to rally the troops (and the opportunity for the NGO to claim a much coveted victim status).
- Play the victim
You might feel wronged but if you are big institution or a company that makes profits, you will never be a victim. Your internal communications machine may make you feel like you are contributing to society, providing jobs and capital, improving the world with innovations that save lives and improve well-being, but outside of your industry walls, the world sees you in another light – as a dominator and exploiter. Oil giant, Shell has done nothing that I am aware of that could be considered as wrong or improper. Can you find anyone who feels sorry for them? Don’t even try to play the victim card.
- Frame the attack positively to fit your story
I insist, time and time again, that good communications depends on consistent story-building that reinforces trust and a positive association with your narrative. If I deny or attack, I become part of the accuser’s story and the loss of trust and credibility becomes my biggest challenge. If necessary, bring in the weakness of your opponent’s narrative, but only to the point that you dismiss them as irrelevant.
So to that nasty “NITS” who calls me a liar, here would be my response:
The Risk-Monger has concentrated on opening people’s eyes to the double-standards in our perceptions and how we are willing to ignore the scientific facts when they go against something we want to believe. What matters are the central issues of public health and food security in developing countries, fighting global diseases like AIDS and malaria that kill millions every year and improving the well-being of a growing population living longer and becoming more mobile. I have been motivated to speak out because so much of our recent policy attention has been distracted by fabricated issues like GMOs, pesticides and plastics, diffused widely without scientific support and evidence. These campaigns misdirect our resources from things that really matter and the solutions science can provide. There might be some who profit from fear and anti-scientific views who no doubt would take issue with such a position, but I respect their right to disagree.
I am not saying this is the best approach to take in all situations, but over the last five years, the Risk-Monger has suffered many attacks on his page by activists whom he has offended. After the first exchange, they never seem to come back.
This is the strategy that Coca-Cola has excelled at. Coke communicators do not spend their time defending the company against their products’ connections with hot-button topics like obesity, waste, cancers, lobbying, energy consumption, marketing ethics or natural resource depletion – those are not part of their narrative and they know better than to try to win against someone else’s narrative. Instead they keep on message (Happy, happy, happy!) and the attacks bounce back to insignificant audiences.
Their fans stay happy … and isn’t that what it is all about? FIFA, are you listening?
Footnote: I did not include in this risk school series organisations that apologise (even though the accusations are false). Too often today companies capitulate to groundless attacks – see this week’s series of surrenders when Taco Bell and Pizza Hut caved in. This is not responding to false attacks, this is letting the PR manager guide corporate policy – highly stupid, cowardly and short-sighted. It will only be a matter of time before the rabid hyenas will be going back at them for more.