Thought Leadership in the Age of Fake News

thought leadership, fake news, Elon musk, Chris Brogan, Doris Kearns Goodwin,

One of the traditionally best routes to positive brand identity, media exposure, and best of all—public trust, is if the founder, CEO, or public face of an entity you represent is, or has the potential to be, what we call a “thought leader.”

“Thought leader” is a jargon-y term, somewhat overused, but succinctly descriptive. A thought leader is a trusted expert in his/her field, often called upon to discuss innovation, best practices, or even the future of said field.

For example, Elon Musk is a thought leader in electric vehicles and space travel; Chris Brogan is a thought leader in marketing and social media; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin are thought leaders on American presidents.

Which brings us to the topic of “fake news.” To be clear, fake news isn’t new. While it is exacerbated by the immediacy—and the anonymity—of the Internet, fake news is not a product of the Internet. From Anecdoa to pasquinades to canards, fake news has been with us pretty much since humans could whisper and wink.

In the past, however, we all recognized the difference between stories about Sasquatch reigning terror across the Yukon and the Taliban reigning terror across Afghanistan. Now, we have honest-to-God fabrications finding their way into the news cycle, as well as people with traditionally venerated bully pulpits claiming any news they don’t like is fake—regardless of who reported it or how un-fake it really is.

Setting aside that entire mess, let’s focus for a moment on what that means for PR professionals. We spend much of our time trying to maintain or promote clients as thought leaders in media outlets that once were trusted sources but now are barraged with charges that they are purveyors of fake news.

Entering into any public conversation these days is not for the faint of heart. The topic could be “The Beauty of Roses” and before you can say “stop and smell them,” someone has posted that “Roses are a faux romantic symbol of the Princess trope foisted on young girls as a means of oppression. Boycott Roses!” And so it goes.

In a recent industry survey, 91% of journalists believe the public trusts them less in 2017 than in years past. With the public so angry and media under relentless attack, will people see our clients as reputable thought leaders or as suspicious co-conspirators with alleged fake news outlets? Should we still try to have our clients featured as thought leaders in media outlets?


But let’s not stop there. It’s still a good thing for clients to be quoted in media coverage of a topic that’s germane to their expertise, thereby achieving third party validation of their role as thought leaders. The key is to be selective in where you place them.

  • Look for media outlets that retain the public trust, that maintain “standards and practices,” and that maintain clear lines between reportorial, editorial, and sales.
  • Look for bloggers who are themselves recognized leaders in their area of expertise.
  • Avoid outlets with a known political bent (unless that’s your audience).
  • Avoid outlets that are “pay to play.”

The other key is to be prolific.

  • Create think pieces (beyond blogs) for the company’s website and newsletters.
  • Write articles for the company’s LinkedIn page.
  • Create “white papers” on issues concerning your clients’ industries and professions.

As we’ve seen, anyone can dispute facts they don’t like. That doesn’t make those facts any less real. If your clients have something valuable to say, help them say it and help them find the right audience.

Emojification of Communication

Emoji, The Unicode Consortium, Apple, Craig Federighi, Microsoft, Luke Stark, The Knight Canney Group

“You know, sometimes you’ve typed a whole message and you realize at the end that you’re entirely lacking in emojification. So we provided the solution: When you tap on the emoji button, we’ll highlight all the emojifiable words there, and you can just tap, tap, tap, tap and emojify.”

Thus spake Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president for software engineering, at last week’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

It seems that Apple’s annual showcase of new tech is not just for corporate image building anymore. Now the world’s richest company wants to transform your written text into strings of colorful glyphs depicting faces, animals, food, machines, sports equipment, musical instruments, hearts, brains, and – if sponsor tie-ins evolve to the point of no return – Chewbacca quaffing a can of Diet Pepsi while moussing with Pantene Pro-V Hair Gel.

This makes for a product placement content marketing public relations mashup of nightmarish proportions, no? Yes. This is almost more overwhelming than that time Microsoft delivered the “reversed hand with middle finger extended.”

Emoji first inserted themselves into the world via 1990s Japanese pagers. And while pagers now sleep with the fishes (sushi, anyone?), emoji have gone forth and multiplied. You’d be hard pressed to find a text message, Facebook post, or Instagram caption that doesn’t contain at least one emoji (emojum?).

And because there is no higher praise than for one tech company to steal copy another tech company’s shiny new thing, thanks to Apple, emoji are on the cusp of ruling the world. Just yesterday, The Unicode Consortium sprang six dozen new emoji on the public, including – for those of you wondering when you’d be able to insert a cartoon image of a pregnant woman into your text message – a pregnant woman.

The implications for your business are as yet unclear. But, as Luke Stark, a media historian and qualitative social scientist, told The New York Times this week, “There is a constant push and pull between people finding new ways to express themselves online, and companies trying to make money off that expression.”

What does this mean for your public relations efforts, your stakeholder engagement? If your audience comprises mostly Millennials or younger, perhaps the integration of emoji into your website, position papers, and blogs will pay off in more participatory and loyal customers. But if you’re, say, a bank that dates back to when Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were duking it out over direct current and alternating current, which now offers a $250 bonus for new checking accounts with a minimum balance of $10,000 – not so much.

In other words, an email sprinkled with emoji could just as easily delight as deflate your customers.

It could be argued that illuminated manuscripts (we’re talkin’ ’bout you, Book of Kells) were the original emoji-laden texts, what with their colorful glyphs of serpents, fish, frogs, and fowl. But at least those images were masterfully drawn and were not simply frivolous addenda to the text.

So, business leaders and owners, use emoji at your own risk. Also, know your audience/your customers. And perhaps be comforted by the fact that If you run into trouble, the Knight Canney Group is here to help you with any and all emoji-centric crisis communications.

Just remember, the more ubiquitous the use of emoji, the more you might be contributing to the downfall of civilization. As Apple’s own Craig Federighi jokingly told the Worldwide Developers Conference attendees, “Children of tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language.”

The Future Is Software – This Week, Anyway

This week Microsoft and Apple made it clear that software is the new hardware. For the time being.

Microsoft is buying the business-oriented social network LinkedIn for $26.2 billion in cash, and Apple is pivoting away from its slow-selling laptops, tablets, and smartphones to focus on improving its software.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called the purchase of LinkedIn key to the company’s corporate image building – a way to reinvent productivity and business processes. “How people find jobs, build skills, sell, market, and get work done and ultimately find success requires a connected professional world.”

LinkedIn has more than 433 million members in 200 countries, which means Microsoft will now own one of the largest social networks in the world.

That bold move is almost matched by the decision of the notoriously-proprietary Apple to allow outside developers access to some of its key apps, including Siri and iMessage. The thinking is that an infusion of fresh innovation will make the iPhone seem, well, fresh again.

Corporate image building aside, the moves by Microsoft and Apple are also smart public relations strategies that allow the companies to prove they can expand beyond their hardware offerings and more fully welcome software developers (Apple) and social media (Microsoft).

Both companies suffer from software that is – as the tech folks like say – “buggy,” so there’s some heavy lifting to be done before LinkedIn fully integrates with Microsoft and outside developers fully integrate with Apple’s closed culture. And it remains to be seen whether Apple and Microsoft can leverage these public relations moves to create more value.

Given that 60% of LinkedIn’s $2.9 billion in revenue comes from services sold to HR departments, that only 25% of users use the service each month, and that just a sliver of users pay for LinkedIn’s premium service, where does Microsoft expect to find growth?

The New York Times reported on Monday that “Apple is under pressure to fix its software and online services, which have become increasingly important to consumers. Apple has a lot of catching up to do … [because most of its] noteworthy … features [are] already offered by other internet companies, namely Amazon and Google.”

Microsoft and Apple have plenty of cash to devote to the secret sauces that will make these initiatives pay off. But tech consumers can be fickle – just ask Blackberry, MySpace, and whoever invented QR codes and laser discs – so neither venture is a sure thing.

The Knight Canney Group is betting, however, that Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella are – to paraphrase Lady Gaga – optimists, spontaneous, and ready to take the rapidly-evolving, software-centric tech world by storm.

Three Skills PR Firms Need to Have NOW

SEO, Content Creation, Analytics, The Knight Canney Group

There are many skills that public relations professionals bring to the table that will never become obsolete: the ability to tell a story, to write and think creatively, to listen, and to anticipate. These are abilities borne of experience and will continue to serve clients well into the future.

As the marketplace evolves, however, new skills are needed. They can’t be ignored and they all begin with digital. Here are three that smart PR firms are using to keep their clients visible.

  1. SEO. Search engine optimization. You’ve heard about it for years and wondered if it’s real or some kind of Internet voodoo, right? Well, it’s real and it’s crucial to your business’s success. Search engines are out there scraping sites constantly for key words and new content. If you aren’t paying attention to SEO, you may as well take down your website and close your social media channels. Your PR firm should be able to help you maximize your SEO. (The Knight Canney Group works with Kirk Communications for all our client’s SEO needs.)
  2. Analytics. Especially in social media. If your client wants a social media strategy, you need to be able to explain why one social media channel is a better match for their audience than another. There are free analytics available for most social media channels as well as more detailed metrics via paid media monitoring services such as Cision and Meltwater, but regardless of source, your PR firm needs to know how to understand and interpret those data.
  3. Content creation. Earned media content is still a staple of most PR campaigns, but more and more clients are asking for content creation to populate websites and social media channels. Whether it’s blogs, info-graphics, videos, or photos (all of which feed nicely into SEO, by the way), PR firms are going to need to be adept and nimble at creating engaging, sharable content. If your public relations professionals can’t help you with content creation, look elsewhere.

Public relations campaigns are becoming ever more complex, multi-faceted enterprises. If your PR firm doesn’t have the skills to keep you moving forward, you need to find one that does!



Anticipation: The Ultimate Tool in Crisis Management

Best form of #crisisPR? Avoid the #crisis in the first place. Anticipate all possibilities.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie Gosford Park, (Julian Fellowes’s precursor to Downton Abby), where the character of Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper, explains what it is that “a good servant has that separates them” from the others:

“It’s the gift of anticipation…I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”

When serving your client, anticipation can be your best tool in avoiding a crisis. Always be thinking a couple of moves ahead to the consequences of your actions.

One would think that in this age of instant information everyone would understand the dangers of a public rant, an ill-tempered tweet, putting proprietary information in an email posting damaging photos on Facebook, and hitting “send” when the better option is “delete.” (Unless, of course, you’re running for President.)

Yet, one would be wrong.

Now, we’ve all failed to anticipate by sending snarky emails, posing for numbskull photos, losing patience with a rude clerk, or with a driver who hogs the passing lane at 45 mph.

It all seems harmless – until that email gets forwarded, that photo gets posted, or that outburst of temper is captured on a cellphone. Then, the world wants to know, “WHAT were you thinking?” The answer, of course, is an inexcusable, “I wasn’t.” And then you’re knee deep in crisis management.

For average citizens, the damage from such lapses can mean anything from the severing of friendships to the breakup of a marriage. Careers, too, can be in jeopardy, as well as any future employment.

For public officials and corporate CEOs, the damage can be irreparable politically and economically. (Remember the email hemorrhage at Sony?) Erosion of confidence in a leader’s judgment or ability to manage his or her impulses can affect everything from voter support to stock prices. In a minute-to-minute information cycle, continuous stories about an ill-considered outburst, an inappropriate photo, or an unfortunately worded email will always obliterate any other agenda, no matter how noble. Once that public conversation starts, it’s very difficult to change it.

For the public figure whether political or corporate – some rules to live by:

  1. Think before you pose, post, text, tweet or hit “send.”
  2. Think before you speak.
  3. Whether you see a camera or not, assume there is one.
  4. Assume someone on the conference call is recording it.
  5. Don’t leave a voicemail with anything other than your name & number.
  6. If you question what you’re about to say, do, or write – don’t do it. Take the time to get a second opinion from someone you trust to be honest with you.
  7. Don’t let anger get the best of you – especially in public. Be polite. Be calm. Make your points with intelligence and leadership, not a show of temper.
  8. Pick your battles.
  9. If you don’t want to see it in a headline, don’t say, do, write, post, or send it.
  10. Follow Mrs. Wilson’s example: anticipate what could go wrong.