Newsjacking the Pandemic: The Rise and Ruin of Spinformation

April 7, 2020

Spin didn’t start the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s not going to stop it either. Consider six cases and the strategies that power them and their players. Each amounts to the subtle but detectable exploitation (i.e., newsjacking) of our new reality.

As though from Chernobyl, Chinese authorities shut down and slow-walked the novel coronavirus’ discovery, and like the small town mayor in Jaws, Donald Trump put his bustling economy ahead of public health, declaring the crisis a hoax and under control.

As shown in the Taxonomy of Influence, left, each employed strategies to protect their agendas. As shown in figure 1, China risked global condemnation for its secrecy, and as shown in figure 2, the president risked lives for his careless proclamations, among other tricks and traps.

It’s lately fashionable to blame purveyors of disinformation – the deliberate communication of dishonest and deceptive information – for messing with the facts. Misinformation is also a culprit; that’s the communication of mistaken albeit misleading information. But the games persuaders play, especially with the COVID-19 virus, are borne of something different and far more injurious. What they privately employ and publicly eschew is a third category of message management. Call it spinformation—communication that’s reframed then fitted to a constituent interest. It’s not fake because it’s rooted in some truth. It’s not disinformation because it’s not done with malice. And it’s not misinformation because it’s not overlooked. But it’s the dark matter that engulfs mainstream and social media, especially when big stories emerge. It’s the plausibly deniable default deliverable of a $450 billion global industry of professionalized persuaders.

When the healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson describes its quest for a COVID-19 vaccine it’s giving the public hope for a cure. But why? And for whose benefit? By way of its big-budget campaign you can’t miss the promise of a life-saving drug. You’re even likely to admire the purpose behind it. But listen for the ifs, coulds and woulds of J&J’s star scientists and other proxies and you realize that this is not your father’s Tylenol crisis, the famed case study in offensive defense. This is a high wire act—an exercise in defensive offense—that bets on a breakthrough and the public’s susceptibility to gaslighting.

Contrast the stunt with Abbott Labs (fd: a former client), a healthcare rival more prone to talk about what it’s done than what it will do: Abbott’s making a COVID-19 tester that’s ready today. No ifs, coulds or woulds. Where one company runs plays that preen another runs plays that inform. As shown in figure 3, J&J’s high-risk strategy invites counterplays that could expose its underlying self-interest. One assumes that it’s simulated the backlash.

I know something of such temptation. In the wake of 9/11, I once urged my PR agency staff to find footholds for our clients in the ensuing media melee. I insisted on ethics and propriety but it was taken as cynical. Was I wrong or just not clever enough? Probably both. What the experience taught me is that some will keep behind the line and risk irrelevance and some will cross it, finesse the facts, and rationalize their social goodness. Purpose, engagement, authenticity and—coming soon—resilience might provide cover for coopting a crisis but it’s clear enough that in a capitalist system these are means to an end. However enlightened an organization may claim to be it’s about the advancement of that organization’s interests and the strategies that bring stakeholders along.

Spinformation: The plausibly deniable default deliverable of a $450 billion global industry of professionalized persuaders

Might we look for leaders to curb the hype? Associations in service to earned media exhort us to Tell the truth. But skeletons strain their credibility and members whose work is invariably more asymmetric than mutual are indulged. Similarly, scholars insist on good ethics but they are far keener to research politically safe subjects than to expose bad strategies.

Take for example the work of Edelman PR, the world’s largest independent public relations agency, which released a special report of its Trust Barometer, an annual survey that measures trust in business, government, social organizations, professions and practices. It’s clever because it glimmers with the patina of social vigilance while diverting attention from a glaring conflict of interest. Edelman, after all, sells services that claim to restore trust – an important intangible asset but one that’s earned through action, not communication. As well, and as I’ve often argued, the PR industry is a cause of (not a cure for) the trust crisis. Edelman is playing the odds that no one notices or challenges its cunning. The upsides of its strategy, as shown in figure 4, suggest it’s a play worth running.

Such creative license isn’t fake, not quite, and it’s neither malicious nor mistaken. But it’s strategically enhanced and inveigled into the social narrative for a player’s benefit first and the public’s second. It’s spin, a term hated by influencers; but the shoe fits.

When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged $30 million to speed a COVID cure it was a feel-good story anchored by the facts of a tangible act. But in the context of Facebook’s cratering credibility it carried the whiff of a charred CSR memo: Do good and you’ll be good. Strategies that morph a player can work but only when the player is worthy of the intended revision. This one, like the others above, is all too obvious for its mixed motive. But as shown in figure 5, the conditions that suit this play are ideal for the giving of guilt gifts. By comparison, tech giant Apple’s manufacture and donation of 20 million medical face shields has drawn praise, not punditry such as this.

Finally, when Russian President Vladimir Putin donned a hazmat suit to visit a Moscow hospital he was revealing the truth of Russia’s COVID reality. But again context is key. Russia, after all, has been too quiet about infection rates so pointed questions were percolating. Always preferring the front-foot, Putin devised a made-for-media event to project public calm and patch a reputation leak. It was a conventional strategy of disclosure that offered some facts but not before they were filtered to inform Putin’s brave image. Figure 6 describes the traits of those who run this play. Look familiar?

From Wuhan to Red Square the incentive to position reputations and brands, re-position old ones, and de-position competitors will increase as the pandemic plunders our once-comfy economy. Programs of social responsibility will be retained but feeling good about a brand or the purpose of one’s employer are only part of what politicos, CEOs, NGOs, marketers, advertisers and PR agencies will now do to survive. Spin – dare we call it spinformation – will proliferate because words are easier to write than vaccines are to make. Let’s commit to calling it out.

Post by Alan Kelly

View this essay on Medium.