Don’t get left behind: the race to influence starts now 

Business seems slow for everyone. Politics in every sense of the word is the hold-up, as we wait for the election outcome. 

 

Patience doesn’t have to equal inertia, though it is tempting in this hot weather.

 

The reality is that whoever wins the election, the new government will have a post-election pause. It won’t be until late September at the earliest that businesses and organisations can meaningfully interact with those in Whitehall.

 

If you want to influence the new government on behalf of your community, stakeholders, or industry, what is the best way to plan and prepare this Summer?

 

Here is a plan of action. While new MPs’ offices and staff laptops are sourced, logins and passwords sorted, and ministerial teams settle in, you can get ready to make an early impact when October rolls around, party conference season begins, and business as usual resumes.

 

  1. Take this seriously: This is the time to bring together your best minds, develop your best strategic thinking, and create compelling content that evidences it. You want to end up with a ‘fish where the fishes are’ thought leadership plan that covers the rest of 2024. This might be a refined version, or you might need to start from scratch. Either way, get started. 

 
  1. Make ideas tangible: You need content ready to go at the start of September. You need materials that prompt conversations with different audiences at different points throughout September, October, and beyond. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Think about the best way to present your ideas and how to measure impact. Create a content plan. Know what your version of success looks like.


  1. Test and refine: Don’t develop content in an echo chamber. Speak with trusted sources, stakeholders and partners, and experts. Get feedback, test, and iterate. Get people ready to support you publicly because your thought leadership content is so good. 


  1. Work with the media: When the content and advocates are in place, start speaking to the media. Take a slow boil approach, and work with a small number of journalists to craft different story angles that support your overall messaging. Don’t worry if coverage doesn’t land until late September/October. It’s about quality in the right media.


  1. Get talking: Ideally, you want a drip feed of coverage running from September through October and November. This creates a lasting digital footprint of your thought leadership that others will notice and you can reference. You can use this to great effect during the October party conference season; securing closed conversations and media interviews on-site at the conferences and offsite afterward.

 

If all this seems a bit much when the sun is shining and England is fighting to stay in the Euros, remember something is always better than nothing. 

 

In this process, we start clients off with a short, fun ideation session, drawing out their best ideas and talking points, which we research to source internal and external evidence and proof points. If there is more time (and appetite among senior leaders and experts), we host a half-day workshop or deliver a series of 1-2-1 interviews. 


We mine your talent to unearth golden thought leadership nuggets that boost brand awareness, get conversations started, and increase your influence. 

Will you be ready for the dawn of a new government? September comes around quickly and hopefully it’s not just tan lines that make you stand out.

 

If you would like to find out more about Allegory, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk

Election manifestos and higher education

With the launch of Labour’s 2024 election manifesto yesterday, the battle lines have been drawn for the parties’ pledges around higher education and skills.

Labour’s manifesto has a big focus on skills in a bid to win support, with a pledge to establish a Skills England body to simplify the complex and often confusing skills landscape for employers and learners, and a transformation of the apprenticeship levy into the Growth and Skills levy. 

While the Labour manifesto is light on funding detail for higher education and university policy, it boldly states the current funding model isn’t working for students, universities, or the taxpayer. Their manifesto promises a Labour government will “act to create a secure future for higher education” and “will work with universities to deliver for students and our economy.” That wording is key – an indication the party wants to work collaboratively with the sector to find solutions and safeguard higher education and HEIs, in contrast to the Conservatives’ briefings about the regulator closing ‘rip off’ degrees and fuelling media coverage of ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses.

The Conservatives created intense debate earlier this month with their plans to close so-called low-value undergraduate courses to fund 100,000 more apprenticeships. Many criticised the policy as a simplistic view of post-18 education as either a degree or an apprenticeship pathway. The proposed policy also stoked fears that the arts and humanities would again be negatively impacted by cuts. The universities that have reacted publicly have pointed to the fact that many HEIs already offer a wide range of degree apprenticeship options to students, combining degree-level study with vocational skills training. 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto promises a review of higher education finance in the next Parliament. They want to consider any necessary reforms in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality, and to make sure there are no more retrospective raising of rates or selling-off of loans to private companies.

It’s perhaps no surprise both Labour and the Lib Dems have steered away from big university funding promises in their election manifestos. The Lib Dems have suffered long-term reputational damage with the public and the media after the party broke their 2010 election manifesto commitment to oppose an increase in student fees while they were in government as part of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition. 

The ramifications from that particular university policy u-turn is a stark reminder of how important education, university and skills policy is to voters. 

If you would like to find out more about Allegory, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk

Building trust and authenticity through thought leadership

Half of C-Suite executives say high-quality thought leadership has more impact on their purchase decision-making during economic downturns than when times are good. But there is often confusion about what thought leadership is, what good looks like, how it should be used, and even who is the right ‘voice’ for it. 


Thought leadership is a formidable weapon in any organisation’s trust armoury. When it is authentic and credible, thought leadership content reinforces clients’, customers’ and employees’ positive perceptions of a company. It reinforces the ‘trusted partner’ image. Research reveals that 75% of decision-makers say that thought leadership content has prompted them to research products or services they had not previously considered. It is much more trusted by this audience, which includes the C-suite, than marketing materials or product sheets.


Thought leadership is critical not only to attracting and retaining new customers but also to helping competitors steal one another’s existing business. Thought leadership can also help to cross-sell or upsell existing customers, particularly for lesser-known offerings.



So what is thought leadership?


Effective thought leadership has three key attributes: it cites strong research and data, helps audiences to better understand their organisational challenges, and offers concrete guidance. 


At Allegory, we demystify the thought leadership process by working closely with senior management teams to identify exactly what their target audience wants to hear about, what a business wants to say, and where the best voices for thought leadership can be found within it.  


70% of C-suite executives said that thought leadership had led them to reconsider their current supplier relationship. About half (54%) said thought leadership made them realise other suppliers might better understand their challenges and needs. 


Put simply, thought leadership usually comes in the form of editorials, which might appear in mainstream newspapers, specialist media, selected blog sites or B2B publications. As the name suggests, the main purpose of these articles is to establish an organisation, or an individual within it, as at the forefront of ideas, innovation and leadership.


Thought leadership offers a very different opportunity than a news story or press release, as it is part of an ongoing strategy to grow brand recognition alongside that of the personalities within an organisation. The more you use thought leadership, the more your profile is raised, which leads to yet more opportunities. It truly is something that can snowball when done right. That editorial in a trade publication can be used to leverage a similar article in a national newspaper, which in turn can lead to an appearance on Sky News or BBC radio. 



How Allegory works to develop thought leadership


Thought leadership is, of course, all about pushing ideas forward and (hopefully) changing minds, whether those are of those you wish to influence, from customers, funders and investors to government ministers. But it also creates a footprint of an organisation’s philosophy and ideas, increasing Google profile and visibility with decision-makers nationally and globally. Some leaders don’t want to put themselves out there in this way, but we believe that this is a mistake. To dismiss this relatively new way of speaking to your audiences is to waste a channel that can bring great rewards. 


At Allegory, we work closely with organisations to hone and develop their thought leadership profile. This means identifying which ideas need to come to the fore, who should be expressing them and who the business needs to speak to. We research audiences and publications, using our extensive media contacts to find the right home for opinion pieces, profiles and commentary. 


We also speak the language of the press. Just because you are a strong leader it does not follow that you already have the skills for this kind of work. We can have as much or as little input as works for you, whether that is ghost-writing editorials, collaborating or simply tidying them up before submission.


The interpersonal relationship with thought leaders is an important one, but also one we handle with expertise and sensitivity. We recognise that those we are working with are the experts in their field, so we use our own experience to bring that out while keeping the elements of individuality that make leaders who they are. 


If you can be bold, controversial or break new ground with ideas then so much the better. After all, a national newspaper editor won’t want to simply give you a platform to talk about your new widget, new educational programme or report unless you can offer something that readers will read, digest and discuss. 


For example, in our work with the Open Data Institute, we would not dream of claiming the kind of practical and academic expertise that the founder of the world-wide-web, one of the UK’s pre-eminent experts on AI or any other members of the extensive senior team have in data infrastructure. But we can hone the way that they put those ideas across, edit to the house style of a national newspaper and speak to top editors about what topics they would most like to hear about.


Tell me about the value of thought leadership


One-off thought leadership can generate new business enquiries but it is unlikely to shift perceptions on a large scale – it takes time and effort and needs to be a well-resourced programme, with organisations prepared to invest in a topic and themes over the long term.


The people and organisations who create thought leadership do so to increase positive sentiment among potential clients (55%), get leads to reach out for more information (48%) and get potential clients to consider their services (40%).


As with all earned media, we believe that this will always have a more powerful impact than advertisements or advertorials. When you are being reported in the news or, more importantly, expressing your opinions in the opinion columns of the Financial Times, Guardian or Daily Telegraph then people notice and they pay attention. 


It is impossible to put a financial value on an editorial, but even that real estate on the page would be into the £1,000s. Never mind the value of being able to speak directly to policy-makers, the public and other media. Thought leadership shows potential employees, investors and customers that your organisation is active, influential and opinion-leading. It is part business development, part publicity, part influencing and part brand building. 


Thought leadership is also an economical way to exploit changes in the way that the media works. Journalists are often overworked, underpaid and trying to hit targets for clicks, conversions and content. Gone are the days when they could spend days on one story, as they chase the page views with often onerous targets. So, providing readymade thought leadership, be that as whole editorials or prepared quotes, saves a lot of time for writers and editors. 


Finding the right voice for your thought leadership


Who delivers the thought leadership matters. The key is to focus on this particular topic, who within your organisation would be viewed as the most credible expert – credibility matters more than the job title. And yet many businesses automatically assume it should always be the CEO.


The more shares and discussion that you can inspire the happier the editor will be and the more likely that they will ask you to write for them again. At Allegory, we recognise that this can often be a difficult path to walk, but we are experts in offering counsel on just how to do that, balancing the strength of opinion within the bounds that individuals or organisations are comfortable with. We know that shareholders and stakeholders matter far more to a business than media coverage for a manufactured controversy. 


In short, we believe that thought leadership is something that every business, charity, university or organisation needs in their arsenal. There are far too many advantages for it to be ignored or something that you can leave to rivals. It is a way to speak directly, forthrightly and in your voice. And there can be few ways of communicating that are more satisfying or more valuable. 


If you would like to hear more about how Allegory Communications has worked with clients to help them become thought leaders and how we could do that for you, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk

why data drives reputation

10 years of data and communications. What’s changed? Everything. We explore how data is going to drive corporate reputation in the decade to come.

Allegory opened its doors in 2012. Since then we’ve helped universities, government organisations, technology and innovation companies to tell their story to a vast range of audiences around the world.

As our clients have grown and evolved, we have become the UK’s specialist data communications agency, with unrivalled experience, relationships and knowledge in this area.

In 2021 we published a report setting out the urgent need for organisations to establish and grow their Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR), an emerging field of corporate governance and ethics.

In 2022, we decided to mark our 10 year anniversary with a series of thought-provoking articles on Why Data Drives Reputation, looking back on a decade in data to explore how organisations can mobilise data and communications to meet their needs in the future. With contributions from six opinion formers from business and communications, each chapter  examines a different aspect of the relationship between data and reputation.

Measuring Impact

By Richard Bagnall, Co-Managing Partner, CARMA and former-AMEC Chairman

A heightened focus on accountability and proving return on investment has left comms teams trying to do as much as possible, with as little as possible, whilst delivering the biggest organisational value. Yet many PR and comms teams still have not fully embraced measurement best practice or applied it to their organisations.

There are plenty of barriers in the way. Some practitioners are unsure where to start, others are battling internal culture or data silos. Securing the buy-in of senior leadership has been shown time and again to be a critical hurdle to overcome.

PR is not alone in feeling this heightened pressure. The 24/7 business environment, disrupted media, escalating crises and increasingly tight deadlines have seen pressure mount across the many facets of critical work that we do. There’s always more work to do with less time and fewer resources.

Do, plan and measure what’s meaningful

Ironically, the busier we are, the less time we have for the things that can make us more efficient: planning, prioritising and aligning our activities with business priorities. If we are too busy getting on just ‘doing stuff’, the temptation to simply ‘count stuff’ can then seem compelling. This risk is compounded by the proliferation of automated portals and SAAS platforms with their pretty dashboards, inflated numbers and real-time charts making ever bigger claims about what their automated systems actually do. 

PRs dirty secret is that some agencies often don’t plan properly. They may just undertake activity and try to get coverage. But they don’t take a step back to decide what the plan is and how that can be measured. Having a proper plan you measure meaningfully against means you understand where you are going and what you have achieved. The best agencies understand that and if you want to match them then so do you. 

Measuring what matters requires a clear and demonstrable link between communication strategy and what is most important to the organisation. Remember, the number one rule in measurement and evaluation is just because you can count it doesn’t mean that it matters. Take a step back to understand your organisation’s business objectives as a starting point for measurement and ascertaining how activity actually contributes towards their achievement. Get tech-informed and data-enabled. 

Technology lends a hand

Technology can enhance every aspect of the way we work and has a huge role to play in media intelligence. But what is critical is that comms professionals know where their data comes from, what the tech does with it, where they can trust it and where it falls short. Where teams rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation to take the entire strain, we end up with messy, fragmented data. 

The PR tech stack and automated media intelligence alone are not going to magically provide the full picture. It takes getting back to basics and applying critical thinking. This means researching, establishing benchmarks and appropriate targets, defining a plan, as well as excellent strategic and tactical execution. You then need measurement beyond activity-based counting, that links through to the organisational effects that are driven as a result of our work. If we continue to measure based on activity-driven metrics, we are just busy fools. We have to measure and use data appropriately to measure based on outcomes that support our objectives.

Tap into the right resources

All this can seem easy to say, but how do we start to overcome the challenges and measure better? As well as my day job at CARMA, for the last six years I have been chairman of the evaluation industry global professional body AMEC. AMEC’s primary focus is to support education and drive best practice in the communications evaluation sector. It is known for setting standards, particularly the Barcelona Principles, which offer a set of seven practical guiding values for meaningful and relevant measurement.

These Principles set out a broad view of what good practice should entail, but they don’t show how to apply that in your own organisation. For that reason I led the team that created AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework. This interactive tool provides all of the guidance and support that you need to create your own meaningful measurement programme, providing a consistent and credible approach that works for organisations of all sizes. Importantly, it can be tailored to very specific use cases, campaigns and objectives. 

Unlock the power of data storytelling

In the years ahead, it is crucial we use measurement to prove that PR is not just a cost-centre undertaking activity, but a genuine value creator, supporting and driving desired organisational outcomes. Even the rise of in-house Insight departments shouldn’t take the data out of the hands and minds of communicators. 

We need clear plans, established benchmarks, KPIs and SMART targets for success. We need measurement that speaks the same language as the organisation’s leaders and provides a meaningful report of achievements. We need to allocate time and effort to measurement as a strategic foundation for planning and course correction to ensure we are getting it right. 

Organisations that can truly unlock the power of data, and PR professionals that can make sure their efforts are accurately represented, will surely have the upper hand.

If you would like to hear more about how Allegory Communications have worked with clients to help them become thought leaders and how we could do that for you, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk.


Subscribe* to receive all six chapters directly to your inbox and follow us on social media. Chapters will be published at regular intervals throughout 2022.

*By subscribing to updates on this campaign, you will receive a marketing email as soon as a new chapter is released. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.

Earned media: the power of thought leadership

By Charlotte McLeod, CEO, Allegory Communications

Thought leadership has become a buzz phrase over the last few years, as business leaders look to get their voices heard above the constant hum of social media and a full news agenda. But there is often confusion about just what thought leadership is and how it should be used. Is it a chance for the CEO to pontificate about their pet projects, one more trend that will be forgotten alongside the Snapchat account, or a genuine chance to engage with audiences and put ideas across in a new way?

What is thought leadership?

At Allegory, we have become adept at identifying when clients stand to benefit from using thought leadership, as well as how and where to place it. We also demystify the process, working closely with senior management teams to identify where the best voices for thought leadership can be found, as well as exactly what it is a business wants to say. 

Put simply, thought leadership usually comes in the form of editorials, which might appear in mainstream newspapers, specialist media, selected blog sites or B2B publications. As the name suggests, the main purpose of these articles is to establish an organisation, or an individual within it, as at the forefront of ideas, innovation and leadership.

Thought leadership offers a very different opportunity than a news story or press release, as it is part of an ongoing strategy to grow brand recognition alongside that of the personalities within an organisation. The more you use thought leadership, the more your profile is raised, which leads to yet more opportunities. It truly is something that can snowball when done right. That editorial in a trade publication can be used to leverage a similar article in a national newspaper, which in turn can lead to an appearance on Sky News or BBC radio. 

How Allegory works to develop thought leadership

Thought leadership is, of course, all about pushing ideas forward and (hopefully) changing minds, whether those are of those you wish to influence, from funders and investors to government ministers. But it also creates a footprint of an organisation’s philosophy and ideas, increasing Google profile along with visibility with decision-makers nationally and globally. Some leaders don’t want to put themselves out there in this way, but we believe that this is a mistake. To dismiss this relatively new way of speaking to your audiences is to waste a channel that can bring great rewards. 

At Allegory, we work closely with organisations to hone and develop their thought leadership profile. This means identifying which ideas need to come to the fore, who should be expressing them and who the business needs to speak to. We research audiences and publications, using our extensive media contacts to find the right home for opinion pieces, profiles and commentary. 

We also speak the language of the press. Just because you are a strong leader it does not follow that you already have the skills for this kind of work. We can have as much or as little input as works for you, whether that is ghost-writing editorials, collaborating or simply tidying them up before submission. 

The interpersonal relationship with thought leaders is an important one, but also one we handle with expertise and sensitivity. We recognise that those we are working with are the experts in their field, so we use our own experience to bring that out, while keeping the elements of individuality that make leaders who they are. 

If you can be bold, controversial or break new ground with ideas then so much the better. After all, a national newspaper editor won’t want to simply give you a platform to talk about your new widget, new educational programme or report unless you can offer something that readers will read, digest and discuss. 
For example, in our work with the Open Data Institute we would not dream of claiming the kind of practical and academic expertise that the founder of the world-wide web, one of the UK’s pre-eminent experts on AI or any other members of the extensive senior team have in data infrastructure. But we can hone the way that they put those ideas across, edit to the house style of a national newspaper and speak to top editors about what topics they would most like to hear about.

Tell me about the value of thought leadership

As with all earned media, we believe that this will always have a more powerful impact than advertisements or advertorials. When you are being reported in the news or, perhaps more importantly, expressing your opinions in the opinion columns of the Financial Times, Guardian or Daily Telegraph then people notice and they pay attention. 

It is impossible to put a financial value on an editorial, but even that real estate on the page would be into the £1,000s. Never mind the value of being able to speak directly to policy-makers, the public and to other media. Thought leadership shows potential employees, investors and customers that your organisation is active, influential and opinion-leading. It is part business development, part publicity, part influencing and part brand building. 

Thought leadership is also an economical way to exploit changes in the way that the media works. Journalists are often overworked, underpaid and trying to hit targets for clicks, conversions and content. Gone are the days when they could spend days on one story, as they chase the page views with often onerous targets. So, providing readymade thought leadership, be that as whole editorials or prepared quotes, saves a lot of time for writers and editors.

Finding the right voice for your thought leadership

The more shares and discussion that you can inspire the happier the editor will be and the more likely that they will ask you to write for them again. At Allegory, we recognise that this can often be a difficult path to walk, but we are expert in offering counsel on just how to do that, balancing strength of opinion within the bounds that individuals or organisations are comfortable with. We know that shareholders and stakeholders matter far more to a business than media coverage for a manufactured controversy. 

In short, we believe that thought leadership is something that every business, charity, university or organisation needs in their arsenal. There are far too many advantages for it to be ignored as this year’s trend or something that you can leave to rivals. It is a way to speak directly, forthrightly and in your own voice. And there can be few ways of communicating that are more satisfying or more valuable.

If you would like to hear more about how Allegory Communications have worked with clients to help them become thought leaders and how we could do that for you, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk.


Subscribe* to receive all six chapters directly to your inbox and follow us on social media. Chapters will be published at regular intervals throughout 2022.

*By subscribing to updates on this campaign, you will receive a marketing email as soon as a new chapter is released. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.

Creating compelling content with data

by Sian Freestone-Walker, Associate Director of Client Services

As an agency that was founded and has grown in the age of data, our first decade has seen a gradual awakening by clients to the importance of data in how they tell their story. A good deal of the public may still only consider data in terms of their mobile device usage, but from businesses to charities and government departments to universities, we always ensure that clients know the value of data in gaining media traction. 

In an age where data is a regular topic of discussion in both Parliament and rolling news bulletins, it is no longer an option for organisations to dismiss its importance as ‘something for the tech sector’. Data should be a part of every business’s brand arsenal, especially as there are two useful ways to approach its use. 

Firstly, there are almost always stories to be found within the data of an organisation, be they in the commercial, charity or any other sector. These stories are found in the day-to-day data that the company needs to operate, which could be anything from customer demographics to sales figures. A sudden influx of members, drop in sales of particular products or a boom in sign-ups to certain university courses could all point towards a story that could be exploited in the media. Are these signs of economic or societal shockwaves, changing tastes or of new trends to come? 

Even asking the question ‘why?’ about such data may be enough to pique the interest of journalists. Consumer media has long been held in thrall by the simple survey, which, with the right polling company or academic institution behind it, can give your client the leading story in anything from The Sun to Today on Radio 4. These stories work in the same way and need not always be the most in-depth, or indeed serious. 

These internal data stories can be a quick win for businesses looking to begin to see what data might do for them, but the larger stories require more thinking and a lot more work. Asking questions and collecting or collating new data offers the opportunity to lead the conversation and establish your brand as being at the forefront of new thinking, new discoveries and innovation. 

With one of our longest-standing clients being the Open Data Institute (ODI), you would expect Allegory to have a firm grip of how these more in-depth data stories can work. We worked with the ODI for several years on what we term their ‘flagship stories’, which are new pieces of original research. These usually lead to a report and the creation of a data visualisation or a data tool that journalists or members of the public can use to explore the data and create their own narratives. The report and supporting tools are published on the ODI’s website, creating rich content and the chance to attract new visitors, highlight other work and attract new members, newsletter sign-ups and events attendees. 

For the most recent of these flagship stories, we worked closely with the ODI to commission new research around data relating to food poverty. This was an area we identified as being one where there may be both interesting data and a story to tell about what data was not there, or was being under-reported. 

Working with our research partners and the ODI, we identified potential stakeholders, both to ascertain their own access to relevant data and to seek their backing later in the process. This saw us establish links with food banks, campaigning charities and organisations that spoke to or for those impacted by food insecurity. 
It also allowed us to tell the story of how the ODI might intervene to improve the collection and use of such data, thus contextualising the story and fulfilling the brief to increase visibility of the importance of data infrastructure. A story about data infrastructure is not something that would interest the mainstream news media per se, but the use of new data to establish our story led to coverage of the report’s findings on ITV flagship news show Good Morning Britain, as well on the James O’Brien show on LBC radio. Both shows’ production teams shared details on the story to their extensive social media followings, leading to an exponential increase in traffic to our client’s Twitter account and website.

The story featured in further broadcast and print media including Metro, Mumsnet, Research Live and Computer Weekly as well as attracting enquiries from target media wanting to use our work for researching later stories, which illustrates the long tail that can be achieved with data stories. The online content is evergreen and, when done well, can be referenced everywhere from consumer media to academic papers. 

If you would like to hear more about how we’ve used data to create compelling content or find out how we could do it for you, please get in touch via bizdev@allegoryagency.co.uk.


Subscribe* to receive all six chapters directly to your inbox and follow us on social media. Chapters will be published at regular intervals throughout 2022.

*By subscribing to updates on this campaign, you will receive a marketing email as soon as a new chapter is released. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.

Countering misinformation and building trust

How social media falsehoods are re-setting the communications agenda, by Sana Bég, Director of Communications, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for South Asia

There can be little doubt that we are living in an era where misinformation and disinformation spread at a faster rate than ever before. That perfect storm of the rise of social media as a primary news source and the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the intensity of the battle to find and disseminate truthful and useful information. Over the same period, disinformation targeting humanitarian organisations also increased in sophistication and scope.

We have faced an enormous challenge of health-related misinformation and disinformation, driven by a wave of uncertainty. Initially, Covid-19 wasn’t fully understood by scientists, as it was new. This gap was filled with malinformed guess-work, rumour and misinformation. 

This is especially difficult and dangerous when you work in a sector that is dedicated to saving lives, as we do at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). We know that false information can kill. We have seen it. While rumours, lies and propaganda have always existed, the social media environments that allow messages to travel far and wide in a matter of seconds are new. 

Both misinformation and disinformation refer to inaccurate information, shared with various interests and purposes. Misinformation is false information spread without the intent to cause harm, while disinformation is false information spread with the intent to cause harm.

The impact of declining trust

At MSF, we saw the direct impact of the steady decline in trust in medical institutions and in organisations like ours in countries where we’ve worked, from Nigeria to India, Iraq, Somalia and some parts of Europe.

The Covid-19 pandemic has fueled health misinformation, putting trust in healthcare providers such as MSF into the spotlight. In conflict contexts, where a lack of trust in the authorities sometimes exists, suspicion of the motives of healthcare providers can serve as the spark to incite attacks on healthcare workers and facilities, as we saw in 2020 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, our teams slowly started working on vaccination campaigns in several countries. However, getting shots into people’s arms was often a challenge for several reasons. One, of course, has been the lack of equitable distribution of vaccines globally. But other factors made vaccinations a Herculean task: our teams faced vaccine hesitancy, staff resistance and widespread misinformation or disinformation. Rumours and misinformation circulating on the internet raised anxieties about the political motivation behind vaccinations to the fore, undermining the health of people living in conflict zones, who already find accessing healthcare a challenge. We implemented measures to combat these challenges, including digital and on-the-ground health promotion campaigns. 

To learn more about how we can tackle misinformation and disinformation targeting our operations, patients and staff, MSF launched the ‘Tackling the information disorder’ project in early 2020. Once the project launched, our specialised team started interviewing MSF staff to learn how they deal with health-related rumours. While many reported how their projects collected and stored these messages in some capacity there was a unanimous sense that our community engagement teams in the field needed better tracking methods and a more robust way of building institutional memory of health misinformation.

To help solve the issue, our team sought out a solution, called MSF Listen. This is a global MSF online platform where health misinformation and common rumours about MSF can be reported, so we can analyse and triage them in real-time. It acts as both an institutional memory with a response history, and as a workflow, in which MSF staff can efficiently communicate about and plan responses to misinformation that impacts their work.

How data can counter misinformation

Over the past two years, we have learned that the problem with false information campaigns targeting MSF is much larger than we had initially thought. While rumours, misinformation, disinformation and other categories of false information are related, they are also different in nature. We need to develop a common language and understanding of these issues to tackle them together. 

We rely heavily on data to help us counter false information, and to help us save lives more effectively and efficiently. For example, in the midst of an outbreak, our project teams look to our epidemiologists to learn where and how fast a disease is spreading and how it can be stopped. The data enhances our evidence-based decision-making, and directly helps save lives.

Additionally, we have multidisciplinary medical teams that support and enable our field work, drive improvements in public health policy and practice. By prioritising person-centred care and working alongside communities, we develop highly contextualised, data driven, holistic evidence-based guidance. 

By combining research, data and medical humanitarian experience, we help create opportunities for knowledge sharing, which in turn helps to shift understanding and practice across the professional landscapes of medical humanitarianism. As a whole, this also allows us to use data to directly counter false information.

Being authentic in an age of inauthenticity

The environment of misinformation makes it all the more challenging for us to build trust and authenticity. It may take us years to build that authenticity, but it can disintegrate in an instant. For example, recently, there was a large disinformation campaign targeting the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the intent to discredit its aid activities in Ukraine. The organisation was compelled to move to public platforms and come out saying that the information circulating online was not true, and was putting its staff at risk. We were mindful that this could have very well been us. Even big names with years of experience and authenticity are at risk. 

The fragmentation of news sources has definitely played a part in the reliability of information. We once knew which the trusted sources were, but the proliferation of online media, social media and state propaganda posing as media has been hugely problematic. 

From a behavioural and cognitive standpoint, the wave of disinformation contributes to an information overload that can crowd out important information. Individuals are confronted with large volumes of increasingly conflicting information, which demand a greater effort to navigate and compete for audiences’ fintie attention span. 

In today’s world, there is no longer a single, verified, trusted source of media that people believe they can rely on. That diversity of media choices can of course be an asset, but it also makes the hunt for authentic information all the more complicated. 

At MSF, one of the things we need to do in that battle for authenticity is to take ownership, to be accountable. This often means being unapologetically who we set out to be as an organisation, and as individuals. In this ratings and algorithms-driven world, it is easy to get swayed by audiences, by what the flavour of the month is and where trends are going. We need to keep that laser focus instead on what our core mission is – to provide emergency medical care to those who need it most.. 

We need to stay true to this, because in this cacophony of misinformation and disinformation, there is no choice but to be unwavering and resolute, as we uphold truth in the humanitarian space.

Sana Bég is Director of Communications at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for South Asia.

Webinar archive:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4y_OWXjvGg0

Sana Bég spoke to Allegory’s Associate Director Iain Aitch in a webinar on Thursday 21 July, where attendees had the opportunity to ask Sana questions about countering misinformation and her work with MSF. 


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Understanding changing audience behaviour

Why communications businesses need to keep up with behavioural change, by Mark Chambers, Head of Corporate Communications, the Department for Education

Perhaps the biggest change in the world of communications over the last decade has been how everything has become more personalised. The start of the century saw a huge shift from print to online, but the last ten years have been marked by much of that information being relocated from your desktop or laptop to your smartphone or tablet. 

In short, your audience has shifted from their desk to just about anywhere inside or outside of their home. Your customers, clients or stakeholders may be viewing your content from their sofa, a restaurant, bus, place of worship, or even the front benches of the House of Commons. 

An increasing number of people are smartphone-first, with many being smartphone-only. This has seen a marked change on how we write, how we design and how we get in touch with our clients, their markets and the media. We are now directing information to our target’s hand rather than their desk. 

But this has also meant that we have gained in terms of data and insight about those we are speaking to. So we can now be as impactful and as up to the minute as possible when delivering them. 

This, coupled with the seemingly unstoppable growth and expansion of social media, means that we are now communicating visually far more often and far more effectively. You can connect with an animation, video or image far more quickly than you can with text. Your job as a communicator is to provide something that will simply stop them scrolling. You often have less than one second to do that. 

Live and direct

We are also finding that those we may work for, be it in marketing or PR, are both aware of and adept at talking directly to their audiences. You have CEOs, politicians and even the former President of the US, in the case of Donald Trump, firing off unedited missives to their followers. So, comms professionals can often find themselves picking up the pieces when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does on social media. 

We need a reason and an argument to insert ourselves into that equation before the troubles start, which can often be difficult when we are talking about large personalities. Some can do it well, but a professional can always improve on that. 

I don’t think we can abandon traditional media, be it in print or online, altogether. In times when there is so much information, and so much false information, the media serves as filter, fact-checker and arbiter of what is worth paying attention to. I can’t see that changing any time soon, no matter how audiences change or how information is disseminated. 

At the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which is an arms-length body of the Department for Education, we have a channel of communication that is almost as large as any media outlet we might approach. We have a LinkedIn channel with 115,000 connections, mostly with those in the business of education. This is invaluable in disseminating messages and can be far more effective for us than a press release, as it arrives directly to those we want to reach, unfiltered. 

Audiences and data

We get feedback and plenty of data on which devices which audiences are using to access certain content, and adjust our future campaigns accordingly. That allows us to be reactive in ways we never would have considered.

When it comes to how I look at audiences and how they change over time, I still use things like Mintel and old fashioned audience research, speaking directly to those we communicate with. That is some of what I really enjoy. After all, we are not robots. We are in comms because we like to talk to others, to get a message out there. 

In terms of how I move with the times, well we use data to build our audience personas, taking the insights we receive from interaction to identify new personas or build on our existing ones. Previously, these would have been a more traditional mix of experience, projection and optimism. The use of data also allows us to keep our personas and target audiences up to date. 

People often forget that personas have a shelf life, as they either move up into a new demographic, or the age group you are targeting completely changes its media tastes or behaviours. Your 21-year-old student is a different person in so many ways just five years on. They may be on their way to a second job, saving for a home or starting their own business. 

Eyes on the future

There is always talk about the newest platforms, as well. I think TikTok is breaking through beyond its younger audience now and, at the very least, other social media platforms are integrating or copying TikTok. People are sometimes quick to dismiss it as something that is ‘not for our client’, but you can bet they will be asking about it before long, because their kids are using it or telling them they should be on there. 

There is a World Cup coming up and those sorts of mass events can make a piece of tech or an app. And that is rarely by accident. This is a global event that brands throw millions of pounds at. I think this is all set to be the TikTok World Cup, from condensed data analysis to dancing fans or players. These big events often catalyse the way that communications trends are going and allow tech companies to test and popularise new apps or features. Expect to see something new emerge. 

That said, podcasts will be huge at the World Cup, as well. I really love them because you can’t yet predict what will and what won’t work. Who would have thought that Peter Crouch, not the most vocal of football players, would have one of the most successful BBC podcasts? This is a fascinating mix of old format with new tech and they really benefit from the oldest of communication methods, word of mouth, to spread. It is both counterintuitive and quite heartwarming. 

It also shows that you can never truly predict how audience behaviour will change over time. You can, and should, have a very educated guess as to where your target audiences will be in five or even ten years. But there will always be the new platform or outlier you never saw coming. 

Mark Chambers is Head of Corporate Communications at the Department for Education.


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Valuing data

Why businesses need to invest in data infrastructure, by Louise Burke, Managing Director, the Open Data Institute

It is easy for us to see how data is almost everything to a company like Meta, Twitter or Amazon, and we all saw how ‘the data’ dictated the government’s response during the pandemic. Yet it can be hard for many smaller or more traditional companies to appreciate its value, not least as data doesn’t appear on the balance sheet in the same way that a piece of machinery or a property might. 

This sense of data being something important-yet-intangible can lead to an unwillingness to invest – when it’s not clear how an investment in data infrastructure can be returned both in financial and reputational terms. It’s a bit like recognising the value of the invention of the train and then failing to build any tracks. 

Hiring right and skilling up

For me, this problem with recognition of value can often be reflected in staffing policy. Most businesses acknowledge the need for staff responsible for tech and some of the compliance issues that surround the use of data, yet those roles are often wrapped up in other functions, or are recruited at too junior a level.

This is a risk for businesses, as ethical, secure and, above all, serious care for and use of data has the potential to allow businesses to forge a competitive edge. If businesses fail to realise the value and importance of the data they hold then they really do risk wasting an opportunity, as well as risking their reputation. It only takes one serious data breach to damage brand image with shareholders and customers alike. 

This is just one of the reasons that I believe recruitment for the role of chief data officer (CDO), especially in larger companies, should be treated every bit as seriously as the C-suite roles occupied by HR, finance or marketing. After all, the staff member in that role has the potential to generate (or cost) the business every bit as much as any other senior staff member in the executive leadership team.

They can keep abreast of legislation, ensure that security is maintained and assist just about any other part of the business, from rationalising accounting to making strategic business decisions or providing evidence for media stories. The next decade may see data regulated and audited in the same way that company finances are today, with individuals accredited for their professional expertise and companies certified for data stewardship, in the same way that financial statements are audited. Only those who plan ahead can avoid the kind of missteps we saw ahead of the implementation of GDPR legislation.

Data ethics

Data ethics – which concerns how data is gathered, stored, used and shared – is also becoming an important issue for those who work with data in their business. It is set to become as significant a consideration as diversity, equality and inclusion in HR practice. The more we understand trust in data and data ethics the more it will inform our decisions about anything from who we work for to where we shop. Moreover, some recent research by Frontier Economics for the ODI showed that increasing trust in data has the potential to raise GDP in the UK by 2.5%.

Data literacy plays a part in this, but as we become a more data-aware society the expectation around these issues will become raised. This knowledge  will also allow people to be inquisitive about what your business is doing with data about them and what your company’s data says about you. And this is where being proactive about data and what it reveals comes into its own. After all, it is one thing to publish information about gender pay gaps in your organisation and quite another to show how you have made improvements in business practice to close those gaps the following year.

Data can allow you (perhaps with the help of communications professionals) to weave great narratives around your ethical and business practices, but it also leaves you as a hostage to fortune should you fail to follow through on promises made or truths revealed. Social media thrives on data and you can be sure that there will be someone out there more than willing to point out any errors or omissions on your part. 

Looking back over ten years of data, as we are doing at the ODI with our Data Decade campaign, also prompts thoughts about the future and how the next ten years will look. I think that one of the big opportunities – which may also offer PR opportunities – will be in showing how data can actually solve the big future challenges to address our climate crisis, as well as how it could help people with well being and health issues. In our work with Allegory over the last ten years we have learnt a lot about how illustrating the potential of data to improve society is a great means of getting our voice across to new audiences. 

I see a lot happening around how data, data practices and organisations who generate, use or handle data are assured (that is – how they inspire trust and build reputations for being trustworthy). For this to happen, we need effective mechanisms that allow data to flow in the right way and to be shared safely. 

I think we will also see organisations within sectors getting together to realise the power of data for the greater good. So, you may have businesses combining their health and safety data in the construction sector, for example, in order to highlight common risks or eliminate accidents. It’s a non-competitive use of data, which has benefits across industry and society. 

Government has a part to play too, of course, and they may well shape some of the changes around how we use and share data – in the UK, the National Data Strategy is a useful starting point that we should see generating  positive effects over the next couple of years. In the meantime, the ODI will continue to progress its mission to work with organisations to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem, believing as we do that data is for everyone!

Louise Burke is the Open Data Institute’s Managing Director.


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