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Illustration by Security Management; iStock

Rebuilding Trust After Misinformation Maladies

Misinformation had a banner year in 2020, and it continues to rise. A 2020 study from the Cornell Alliance for Science of 38 million articles about the COVID-19 pandemic in English-language media worldwide in the first five months of 2020 found that more than 1.1 million contained misinformation ranging from mere mistakes to conspiracy theories to dangerously misleading or false statements about potential treatments and miracle cures.

Misinformation has the potential to cost lives, the report’s authors said. If people are misled by unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they are less likely to observe official health advice—putting themselves and others at risk of the spread of COVID-19. In addition, “health protection strategies such as hygiene, sanitation, social distancing, mask wearing, lockdowns, and other measures will be less effective if distrust of public health authorities becomes sufficiently widespread to substantially affect public behavior,” according to the report.

Exposure to fabricated news or misinformation also leads to general distrust in political institutions and media organizations. A Harvard Kennedy School study found that exposure to misinformation—particularly fake news delivered through a divisive or sensational lens—in a one-month period around the 2018 U.S. midterm election resulted in a 5 percent decrease in media trust.

“The consequences of this lack of trust are especially apparent in times of crisis and uncertainty when citizens are most in need of credible sources providing current and reliable information,” according to the report. “To the extent that fake news can undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream media, it may not only leave its consumers misinformed, but also make them more vulnerable when disaster strikes.”

Trust in information sources across the board hit record lows in 2021. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in traditional media dropped eight points from 2020, with only 53 percent of survey respondents looking to it for reliable information. Social media and owned media dropped even lower—just 35 percent and 41 percent of respondents, respectively.

When the government is absent, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void.

But there is a glimmer in this dark cloud of mistrust. The 2021 Trust Barometer found that business is the most trusted institution—globally, 61 percent of people trust information from business—and among the four institutions studied (business, NGOs, government, and media), it was the only one seen as both ethical and competent.

“When the government is absent, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void, and the high expectations of business to address and solve today’s challenges has never been more apparent,” according to the report.

More than 85 percent of respondents agreed that CEOs should publicly speak out about societal challenges, and 68 percent said CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems. More than three-quarters of respondents said that they trust their employer. More than half of survey respondents (53 percent) said that when reliable news media is absent, corporations have a responsibility to fill the information void.

To maintain this trusted position, businesses need to guard information quality, ensuring that trustworthy information goes out to employees and the community, the Barometer said.

But during a crisis—whether a macro-crisis that affects a broad audience, like a natural disaster, or a micro-crisis within an organization or department, like an insider threat—security is often an integral part of a business’s response. Therefore, security professionals need to be prepared to participate in communication efforts, says Ernest DelBuono, a crisis management consultant and member of the ASIS Crisis Management and Business Continuity Community Steering Committee.

“You need to understand communications because your corporate communications are an important part of any type of security issue you may have,” he says. “As a security professional, if you can’t understand how the communications system works, it’s going to be hard for you to convince the communicators where they need to go.”

Or if security tries to be protective and lock down any information about an incident from spreading, it won’t stop people from communicating about the incident on their own—often with erroneous information, or relying on outside reporting or opinion about the organization.

“Meanwhile, we’re losing market share, we’re losing reputation, because we’re not saying anything,” he adds. “Silence doesn’t help. You’ve just given up control of the narrative.”

Instead, DelBuono recommends forging early and frequent partnerships with counterparts in communications departments to embed security in crisis management and communications protocols. He also suggests positioning security leaders as internal subject matter experts and potential spokespeople—especially for security topics like workplace violence incidents.

Effective messaging depends on determining the correct audience and selecting the right representative to deliver messages. But this is not always the CEO, DelBuono cautions—crisis communication models often recommend selecting speakers based on credentials and qualifications instead of organizational position. In a health crisis, for example, the company could present information from its chief health and safety officer, who could walk employees through developments and safety measures as the crisis unfolds.

Risk communications is about allowing the audience to make its own decisions.

Despite business ranking highest on the 2021 Trust Barometer, trust in information from authority figures is still low all around. Even if an organization handled the many crises of 2020 well, it exists in a world rife with polarization, conspiracy theories, and mistrust, says Helio Fred Garcia, a professor of crisis management at New York University and president of Logos Consulting Group. A societal lack of trust requires businesses to take additional steps to shore up employees’ and stakeholders’ confidence in their statements and competence.

The key to developing—or rebuilding—trust is to make good on your promises, Garcia says. However, it cannot stop there. After the company makes a declaration of its commitment, it must deliver on that promise, remind people that it made a promise and met it, and then repeat the process frequently and vocally.

And these promises don’t need to spring from an ambitious shift in company strategy or mark the completion of a multi-year project, either.

“On all the things you know you’re going to do anyway, turn each of them into a promise,” Garcia says. “And if there are five steps to any one of those things, make that five promises.”

After people are regularly reminded of how they can trust the business to meet its obligations, trust begins to grow and solidify, he adds.

During a crisis, promises may need to be curtailed. DelBuono advises that crisis communications start early, stay open and trustworthy, and only promise that leaders will do their best. Situations can change quickly, rendering early pledges obsolete or unfeasible, but the audience may not understand the context and only see that the organization failed to meet expectations, he says. It may even be worthwhile to add a disclaimer to press releases issued during a crisis explaining that as more facts emerge, information may change.

However, this does not always address the challenge of misinformation. “We can’t persuade the unpersuadable,” Garcia adds. Misinformation often serves the role of people making sense of existing grievances, becoming a form of confirmation bias.

“One reason it is so hard to get people off of misinformation is because it makes sense for them, connecting their grievances in a common cause,” he adds.

Consider conspiracy theories about microchips in vaccine doses. People are already anxious about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic, so they may use rumors and misinformation to justify their fears. However, like rumors, these justifications spread and they amplify as they proliferate.

This can impact the workplace in a number of ways, Garcia adds. Increased division along differences in belief systems or conspiracies can foster an “us vs. them” mentality, which can result in conflict in the workplace.

“There’s this clash of worldviews that puts people’s safety and lives at risk,” Garcia says. “Now what does this do to trust? You end up trusting your own team, and distrusting the other team.”

While different belief systems will always exist in the workplace, Garcia says the key in turbulent times is to declare and enforce a set of clearly defined values or protocols, such as demanding that employees treat each other with respect, and imposing consequences for disrespect. Being clear and up-front from the start helps people to know where they stand within the workplace, how they should model their behavior, and what information to expect from their employer.

“Risk communications is about allowing the audience to make its own decisions—about whether to go out in public, to use this product, to stop using this medication,” DelBuono says. “Particularly in a crisis, people want to know not so much that you’ve solved the problem, but what action you are taking as an organization.”