On January 6, 2021, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Before wall-to-wall coverage spread across our televisions and computer screens, I was receiving texts from family and friends in the area, worried about what was to come. As a native Washingtonian, it was hard to fathom that my hometown, my own backyard, was under attack. The news unraveled slowly: at first, we didn’t know the magnitude of the insurrectionists’ actions, the extent of their damage, or the lasting stain they would leave on our nation’s history.
Those initial moments of uncertainty were terrifying. In an era where tweets come before articles, I wasn’t sure how to verify what I was hearing. What was actually happening, and what was misinformation? While I waited for answers, I was fearful that any delay in action on my part could have major implications for our colleagues in DC. I was at a loss when it came to protecting and informing my team when they needed me most.
My uncertainty came at a time of increased responsibility for business and employers as trusted sources of information. Nearly half the respondents surveyed in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer view the media as a divisive force, and their concerns about fake news have reached an all-time high (76 percent). ‘My employer’ remains the most trusted institution (77 percent), with communications from ‘my employer’ viewed as the most believable source of information (65 percent).
CEOs face a new challenge: they must both navigate a dangerous epidemic of misinformation and deliver stabilizing, unifying information to the variety of stakeholders they serve.
Against this backdrop, CEOs face a new challenge: they must both navigate a dangerous epidemic of misinformation and deliver stabilizing, unifying information to the variety of stakeholders they serve. Companies bear new responsibilities to employees looking for Covid-19 updates and guidelines to protect their health and safety; to consumers looking for honest, transparent accounts about how a company’s products or services benefit them and the world at large; and to investors demanding status reports on improved corporate governance practices.
Here are a few considerations for business leaders navigating the infodemic:
First, be absolutely rigorous about the content you produce. Companies and their leaders must safeguard the integrity of the information they distribute in the public domain. Every communications, marketing, and public affairs function is going to need its own team of fact-checkers to validate information and cite sources.
Second, understand your growing and diversifying audience(s). Each company’s owned content operation will look different, but leaders must take the mantle of communicating directly with an expanding number of stakeholders — from employees and community members to consumers, shareholders, policymakers, and beyond. Be forthcoming and honest about how your company’s announcements, actions, and priorities impact each group. And be sure to leverage the most trusted, knowledgeable, and relevant spokespeople to deliver those messages.
Finally: lead by example, and invite others to join you. When a disproportionate level of responsibility is placed on a single institution (in this case, business), our entire society suffers. Business leaders have an opportunity to partner with and encourage their counterparts in the media. They can do so by investing in quality journalism; by bolstering local news with underwriting and other forms of support; and by entering media partnerships that bring attention to the most pressing issues of the day. They also must recognize their power to remove financial incentives for disinformation by only directing advertising dollars to media companies and platforms who commit to anti-disinformation frameworks.
Media may be the primary target of blame for our disinformation problem, but its leaders cannot solve the infodemic alone.
Media may be the primary target of blame for our disinformation problem, but its leaders cannot solve the infodemic alone. Business must take action, especially as we approach midterm elections in the U.S. and year three of a global pandemic. If business leaders can rise to the challenge, they will help put an end to this dangerous cycle of distrust, restore balance across institutions — and improve their own company culture, communities, and bottom lines in the process.
Lisa Osborne Ross is U.S. CEO.