Do facts matter? Deepfakes, intergenerational comms and demanding transparency

Communication is changing and facts are more important than ever.

05 Nov Do facts matter? Deepfakes, intergenerational comms and demanding transparency

One way that good PR agencies (and companies, generally) stay at the forefront of the industry is by investing in their employees – be that mentoring, internal training, or by sponsoring them to attend educational events or join professional organizations, etc. As some of the newest members of the SpeakerBox family, my colleague Ben Stanton and I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 National Communicators Summit, hosted by the National Press Club in downtown D.C. last week.

The day started early with remarks from Francesco Marconi, R&D Chief at The Wall Street Journal, who discussed AI and the impact to how we write and consume news – including a variety of new tools for journalists and marketers.

Over the summer, I read that the AP and Wall Street Journal have been using AI to write formulaic financial and sports stories. After the 2016 presidential election, I became aware of the dangers of social media echo chambers. One new thing I learned during Marconi’s presentation was the impact of deepfakes on our view of truth and reality – and not just in the future. (The WSJ has a great video explaining the concept). Deepfakes will challenge (and are challenging) our perception of truth and reality. Particularly in this divided political climate, it makes me wonder how we will verify video and audio we consume in the future – how many people will fall for false information and what will be the impact of it in the long run? We’re already struggling with social media trolls and an onslaught of information – what if we cannot trust our eyes or ears as well?

The first panel session, which covered intergenerational communication and how to reach specific audiences, was far less scary and far more hopeful. It included a number of big names like Shira Harrington (CEO of Purposeful Hire, Inc.), Brig. Gen. Omar Jones (Chief of Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Army), Matt Bennett (EVP of Corporate Communications for the Motion Picture Association of America), and Lauren Levinson (SVP at Brodeur Partners).

The panel spoke to a distinct need to understand younger generations in order to reach them where they are, which comes back to a mainstay of marketing: know your target audience. Younger generations of today are more egalitarian, more informal and more accelerated. Communication needs to be scannable. Messaging needs to be pithy and witty.

Jones mentioned a shift in the Army’s approach to recruitment and training younger soldiers. Whereas before, the armed forces expected loyalty of their newest recruits, now (for better or worse) they realize that they must earn it. And even in the Army, hierarchy is flattening – Jones mentioned that he interacts with younger soldiers far more than his predecessors. The Army is evolving to match a cultural shift.

Journalists and editors comprised the second panel, which focused the conversation on how media organizations were repurposing content and how communicators could make journalists’ jobs easier. We heard from Mary Nahorniak (Deputy Managing Editor of Digital at USA Today), Sudeep Reddy (Managing Editor at Politico), Justin Green (Deputy Managing Editor at Axios), and Derek Wallbank (Team Leader for Bloomberg First Word).

Much of the conversation centered around the rigors journalists face when trying to accurately report news. The panel all agreed that they didn’t see a need for press releases and reiterated advice that I’ve heard a million times over the years: reporters receive thousands of emails a day; if you want a pitch to resonate, you have to capture them in the email subject and first line of the message. A tough ask when also trying to ensure you pitch a topic with nuance and context.

After lunch, we heard from Frank Sesno, professor at George Washington University and Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs. He discussed the history and future of journalism, the importance of asking the right questions and the power we have as creators and consumers of journalism and content. His sprinkled his conversation with powerful anecdotes and data alike from his recent research and book, Ask More. An incredibly dynamic speaker (and teacher), neither Ben nor I struggled to stay engaged in Sesno’s presentation (even though the after-lunch slot is usually tough).

Sesno reiterated some of the same themes we’d heard throughout the day but added to them, making recommendations for how we, as an industry, can improve. With the current “epidemic of misinformation,” transparency is more important now than ever. We have to determine if this is the result of a reset or if it’s our new reality. With the “crisis of credibility” we’re experiencing as communicators, we need to build critical thinking into our education – consumers of news should know where and how to look for opposing viewpoints. We should share our viewpoints and biases publicly, as well as our sourcing. We should admit to errors when they happen and clearly identify sources. The bottom line, argued Sesno, was that we “engage, be humble and be transparent.”

When asked if facts matter, Sesno pointed out that they are easy to attack and pick apart. He gave the example of a patient and doctor: when a doctor says that we’re sick, we don’t call that diagnosis ‘fake news’ and leave the office. If we doubt the doctor’s diagnosis, we get a second opinion. Our news consumption must be the same.

Emily Burdeshaw
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