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:

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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Allegory marks 10th anniversary and explores why data will drive corporate reputation in the next decade

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. And we’ve won some awards in the process.

As our clients have grown and evolved, we have become the UK’s specialist data communications agency, with unrivalled experience, relationships and knowledge. Indeed, 2021 saw Allegory publish 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’re celebrating a decade of great clients, great results, a great team, and hard work, with a campaign of our own: Why data drives reputation. At the centre of the campaign will be six thought-provoking articles, written by company leaders and opinion formers, each exploring how data and ethical business processes will continue to change our communications world in the decade to come. Our six topic areas and authors are below.

We’ll be publishing these articles at regular intervals throughout 2022, and we’d love to hear what you think about them. Make sure you get to read them all by subscribing to receive them directly in your inbox and following us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Chapter 1: Valuing data

Author: Louise Burke, Managing Director, The Open Data Institute

From online shopping suggestions to recommended shows on Netflix, data now shapes many aspects of our lives. Over the past decade, organisations have accumulated and acquired huge amounts of data and have spent billions on managing it and using it to their advantage. Whilst society has benefited from these data-targeted services, people have become increasingly sensitive about how their personal data is used.

This article will look at how good data governance should be front and centre for all businesses: an essential element of the brand promise made to customers, shareholders and stakeholders. When done well, the data story told to these groups can add huge value to a brand’s equity, its loyalty and to its bottom line. But poorly managed, data is an incendiary asset. Lose it, abuse it, or ignore it and the cost goes well beyond any financial penalty.

Chapter 2: Understanding changing audience behaviour

Author: Mark Chambers, Head of Corporate Communications, Department for Education

Whether it’s Apple trying to lure millennials to buy the latest iphone, or the NHS encouraging hard-to-reach-groups to get vaccinated, effecting change and action relies on understanding behavioural triggers, and that requires organisations to collect and analyse the right data. 

This piece will address how behavioural science and the data that drives it is starting to take root in strategic communications, guiding the direction of campaigns, steering the creative process and providing the benchmark for evaluation.

Chapter 3: Countering misinformation and building trust

Author: Sana Bég, Director of Communications, Médecins Sans Frontières South Asia

The past five years have seen an exponential rise in the dark art of online influencing and the spread of misinformation. Hostile actors – whether sovereign states, groups or individuals – have used the proliferation of online social channels to target society with factual ambiguity, political spin and blatant untruths. 

So how do organisations cut through this blanket of mistrust? This article will examine how ethically responsible businesses can communicate to their audiences in a manner that is seen as authentic and trustworthy.

Chapter 4: Creating compelling content with data

Author: Sian Freestone-Walker, Associate Director of Client Services, Allegory

As competition for column inches intensifies against a backdrop of editorial cutbacks, how can organisations develop content that really lands with its audiences? Data is key. When packaged in an authentic way, data can illustrate and provide independent evidence for the story being told. 

This piece will examine how data-rich organisations can maximise their competitive advantage by using their data to create high-quality, action-focused content that aligns with the beliefs and emotions of their audiences, and has the greatest chance of effecting change.

Chapter 5: Building thought leadership in a digital age

Author: Charlotte McLeod, CEO, Allegory

I’ve chosen to write about thought leadership. This is a type of content that seeks to provide the best answers to the biggest questions on the minds of target audiences on particular topics, in formats the audience likes to consume. Quality thought leadership is increasingly important if an organisation is to build its reputation, influence key stakeholders, and drive change. But gaining cut-through has never been more challenging thanks to the rise of ‘click-bait’ and the ongoing decline of editorial media space. There is also increasing evidence that the younger demographics turn away from brands that fail to take a stand on the global issues they are concerned about. 

This piece will look at how business leaders can stand out in a competitive media landscape by making known their commitment and position on key issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion; sustainability and ethical supply chains, backed up by the data they hold.

Chapter 6: Measuring impact

Author: Richard Bagnall, Chairman, AMEC (International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication)

As communicators, we start most campaigns by thinking about the end: the impacts we want to achieve, how we will evaluate them and the data we need to evidence change. However measuring impact has a myriad of challenges, especially for smaller organisations who struggle to access expensive proprietary tools, and for communicators delivering clever campaigns whose impact is often not seen for many weeks, months or even years.

So how do we prove we’re delivering on our objectives for our clients, our boards and others in our companies? This article will look at the new tools and techniques for analysing and pinpointing impact, and how data-rich organisations hold the evaluation advantage.


Here at Allegory, we hope you enjoy these articles and find value in them. Please share your views – we’d love to get some conversations started. Do you think data drives reputation? 

Goodbye for now, we will be publishing our first article soon!

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10 years of data and communications. What’s changed? Everything.

It’s been a decade since Allegory – then Thwaites Communications – opened its doors. The past 10 years have been a whirlwind of excitement, challenges, achievements, hard work and lots of learning – about business, about human nature, and about something which drives much of modern life in 2022 – data.  

Allegory is marking its 10-year anniversary with a new campaign: Why Data Drives Reputation, exploring the inextricable link between data and communication. Before that happens, I want to take a look at some of the changes, challenges and realities that have defined a decade for me, for Allegory, and for everyone.   

Back in 2012, as I watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics on the TV and saw Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, live tweet ‘THIS IS FOR EVERYONE’, I had little idea that data would find its way into the heart of the agency I’d just founded, and into, well, pretty much every aspect of my life. 

I also couldn’t have predicted that within a few weeks I’d be working with Sir Tim himself at the Open Data Institute, where he is co-Founder of one of Allegory’s foundational clients, along with UK AI expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt (who is also Principal of Jesus College, Oxford). In September 2012, I and my fledgling business became immersed in the world of data, AI and innovation. And so it has stayed for the past 10 years. 

Data is everywhere, and increasingly visible 

In 2012, I certainly wasn’t using any of the on-demand, algorithm-led, data-driven services I use now. Deliveroo was not delivering my groceries within 10 minutes of an order; Zipcar was not loaning me a car to visit friends; and Netflix was not recommending its latest big hit show (in fact in 2012 Netflix’s first original TV series was released: Lilyhammer).  

Unless you happened to be down the pub with a bunch of computer or data scientists, it’s unlikely that data was on your radar at all in 2012 – except perhaps how much ‘data’ you had left on your mobile phone.

The pandemic has bought data into plain sight 

Fast forward ten years, and data is now part of a public conversation that was inconceivable in 2012. For the past two years, data has dictated whether we go out or stay inside; see friends and family, or (video) call them; go into the office, or stick to Zoom. Zoning into the latest Coronavirus statistics has become a habit for many – enabling us all to understand the current situation and have an opinion on what should come next. The pandemic, and, sadly, the current conflict in Ukraine, has also shown us how data can be used in misinformation and disinformation campaigns by individuals and groups with either ill-informed or dangerous agendas, and disseminated to millions via social media. 

There are so many things to learn from the pandemic, but I hope one of them is that data is relevant to all our lives – we can and should engage with it, but we should also understand its provenance. Whilst data was previously a hidden commodity, it is now recognised as a part of our national infrastructure, like roads and utilities, and we need to manage and engineer it in the same way.  

The pandemic has also shown us how powerful it can be when data is shared across borders. The World Health Organisation is able to quickly identify new Coronavirus variants because the global scientific community is continually reporting patterns and trends. The response from the best epidemiologists in the world is immediate. 

Communication never stands still

Just as data has irrevocably changed our lives over the past 10 years, so communication has evolved into a very different beast. In a media landscape which is dominated by 24/7 social media engagement and always-on channels, gaining cut-through is challenging for everyone working in our field. And of course it’s a much more crowded, competitive environment now. Everything has to be better all the time. Better stories (backed up by data!), better targeting and better impacts. 

As an agency, Allegory has responded by hugely diversifying its skills set: from a team of PR and strategic communications specialists in 2012, to a flexible, multi-faceted group of professionals able to run large-scale, multi-channel, multi-disciplinary campaigns in 2022. 

Plus ça change 

Whilst the world of data races on, some things closer to home remain constant: values, mission and work ethic. When I launched the agency I wanted to work with interesting people making a difference in the world. Sure, there was more money to be made in the corporate world, but that wasn’t and isn’t for me and those I work with.  We want to work with organisations that have a social purpose – across all sectors.

After a career advising UK government ministers, and reporting the news, I was used to applying intellectual rigour to every aspect of my work, and when I started the agency, I sought out clients where I was able to exercise that. I found it in (to name just a few) the Open Data Institute where we have worked to bring the value of data to public and private sector audiences over the past 10 years and in the Open University where we launched FutureLearn – the first UK MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platform and in the visionary rebrand of the Energy Systems Catapult.  

But, without doubt, the greatest joy of the whole adventure has been the team – because any business is really about its people. I realised early on that to recruit dedicated, passionate, loyal staff is incredibly difficult and that we needed to ‘grow our own’, harnessing early talent and developing the strategic communicators of the future. Our internship programme has launched the careers of some truly excellent communications operators. They have rewarded us ten-fold with their dedication and energy. 

Charlotte McLeod, Allegory CEO

Now that I have stepped away from a day-to-day role at Allegory and onto pastures new, I feel very fortunate to have Charlotte McLeod as Allegory’s CEO, safeguarding and expanding my legacy, taking Allegory into its second decade and next iteration. Surrounding oneself with people who align with one’s values is always a great way to bring out the best in every situation. 

Onwards!

Why Data Drives Reputation will celebrate Allegory’s decade in business by looking to the future. We’ll be joining forces with six opinion formers from business and communications to explore how organisations can meet their goals by mobilising two huge drivers for change: data and communications. From responsible data governance and understanding audience behaviour, to countering misinformation and building thought leadership. Make sure you get to read all the articles by subscribing to receive them directly in your inbox and following us on Twitter and LinkedIn

10 years is a milestone for any business. Many don’t make it, and I’m extremely proud that Allegory has. 2032 – here we come! 


Emma Thwaites is Founder and Executive Chair of Allegory, and Director of Communications & Marketing at the Open Data Institute

Let’s start the conversation on Corporate Digital Responsibility

It was fantastic to be part of the CIPR – Chartered Institute of Public Relations national conference today where we hosted a session on ‘Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) – What You Need To Know Right Now’. Chaired by Allegory’s Associate Director Iain Aitch, our panel included: Allegory CEO Charlotte McLeod; Anne Gregory, Professor Emeritus in Corporate Communication at The University of Huddersfield; and Rob Price, Director at Alchemmy and founder of corporatedigitalresponsibility.co.uk

Allegory is a strategic communication agency that helps organisations lead the conversation on technology. That includes us, too. For the past ten years, we’ve been working with one of our clients, the Open Data Institute (ODI) co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Just last week, Tim and I were chatting about how much the world has changed in the last decade, and now Allegory wants to help fellow communicators be a driving force for good in the emerging CDR field. 

Communicators should be proactively helping organisations to identify, address and prepare for the challenges, risks and opportunities – both existing and emerging – in the digital world. We know that when a data-related crisis reaches the public’s awareness, or that of any external stakeholder, it will fall to us to deal with. This means that communicators being ‘front-footed’ on CDR is in everyone’s best interests.

The panel first worked together on the subject of CDR back in April, when Allegory convened a roundtable discussion that led to the publication of our report on the subject – available to download here

Allegory saw a gap in available resources for communications professionals, which is why we created a six-stage practical framework (below) that helps communicators get CEOs and boards talking about CDR, and taking steps to address both the opportunities and risks inherent in CDR.

It is quite likely that your CEO or board may never have heard of the term Corporate Digital Responsibility, though once put to them, it has a ‘Ronseal’ appeal. We’ve reached a tipping point in history, where every business – regardless of size, service, or sector – is a data organisation, so they simply can’t ignore it. CEOs may naturally want to confine CDR to being an issue for the IT department to manage (perhaps because of their own low level of interest in data and digital), but data is always about people, and the CEO is ultimately accountable for responsible business practice.

If your organisation gets CDR right, it can help you to generate funding and retain investment. It can help attract and retain the best people, as well as maintaining and building your own reputation. That’s money, people, and reputation all at stake. 

One of the best ways to start a conversation with your CEO is to use the existing language that boards know. The CEO might say to you: “Where does CDR fit in, it feels like it is the G bit of ESG*?”. Actually, CDR sits across all three areas of ESG. It is like the nervous system of the body of an organisation and affects every person and team within it. In that way, it is a bit like the EDI** agenda. If you can get the CEO’s buy-in, it will trickle down and permeate the organisation. If it’s just stuck within the IT department, then it won’t get the level of board understanding needed. When things go wrong, it will ultimately land back on the communicators’ laps to sort out the mess.

* ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) represents a more stakeholder-centric approach to doing business. ** EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) ensures fair treatment and opportunity for all, by eradicating prejudice and discrimination on the basis of an individual or group of individual’s protected characteristics.

The good news is that the only way to get CDR wrong, is to do nothing. It’s an emerging issue and everyone is in the ‘Discovery phase’ for now. The next bit of good news for boards is that they shouldn’t be expected to have all the skills needed to address this, quite the opposite. Successful CDR requires a multi-stakeholder approach, a strong CDR culture and community of practice – all of which communicators can help convene and create.

Six steps to protect your business from digital risks

Practical steps you can take right now to identify challenges, mitigate risk, build a CDR culture and prepare an effective communications function to deal with challenges in advance.

1. Conduct a landscape analysis audit

By the time a problem gains the attention of the public, it’s too late to stop the media fallout. A full landscape analysis will help you identify the potential threats to your business in advance and prepare you to fix them quickly.

Key activities:

  • Identify and interview key stakeholders (CEO, CTO, Head of Marketing etc.)
  • Run a workshop to map risk factors, opportunities and audiences (SWOT/PESTLE analysis)
  • Write up workshop results and publish them internally

2. Plan communications strategies

With your key threats identified, it’s prudent to have communications plans in place to deal with them if and when they arise. Make sure you plan carefully for every foreseeable eventuality and include a listening strategy, as well as an outbound comms strategy, to ensure you’re one step ahead of the conversation.

Key activities:

  • Analyse existing policies and practices, channels and stakeholders
  • Hold a workshop to map strategies to threats and opportunities, noting any gaps
  • Develop CDR-specific reactive ‘Lines to Take’ and brief relevant stakeholders

3. Build a strong community of practice

No single team member has all the skills to address Corporate Digital Responsibility. You’ll need a multi-functional approach that engages with all key stakeholders if you want to succeed. Start by identifying essential personnel to form your CDR team. C-level executives will be the foundation – they’re ultimately responsible for digital security – but technology and communications experts are an essential piece of the puzzle, too. You might also consider including those most at risk from data breaches to ensure a participatory approach to CDR. Remember, diverse voices give you a better chance to identify threats and opportunities.

Key activities:

  • Hold a workshop to identify and prioritise stakeholders
  • Convene a working group of stakeholders and agree on an operational memorandum
  • Launch the working group publicly to key audiences

4. Ensure effective horizon scanning

The playing field of digital technology is constantly changing, so you’ll need to create a function dedicated to monitoring your organisation’s environment. This is key to understanding challenges at the earliest point in their lifecycle. With a close eye on the changing landscape, your team can ensure you have the correct procedures in place to combat emerging threats. 

Key activities:

  • Review identified stakeholders, policies and procedures
  • Hold a workshop to map key stakeholders’ sensitivities and identify potential critics
  • Map prominent individuals and groups, identify their position in advance and develop engagement strategies

5. Plan your internal communications architecture

CDR may be a leadership-level responsibility but it’s a team effort. Employees are a critical audience you’ll need to engage with to ensure compliance across your organisation. To mobilise their resources, you’ll need to communicate effectively with them. 

Key activities:

  • Review existing communications processes and procedures, as well as past successes and failures
  • Conduct a deep dive into engagement channels and map the most effective strategies
  • Plan communications monitoring and analysis across a set timeframe (6 to 12 months)

6. Plan to manage stakeholder engagement

Customers, partners and other external stakeholders have their own parts to play in managing data security. You’ll need to make sure they’re aware of their responsibilities, as well as the consequences of their actions. Governance is most effective when it’s run on a participatory model, so include stakeholders from the ground up. Remember, open and transparent communication is the foundation of trust. Never hesitate to bring your audience into the conversation.

Key activities:

  • Create a deep-dive stakeholder engagement report as a framework for your messaging strategy
  • Develop messaging and materials
  • Build reactive ‘Lines to Take’ and brief key stakeholders

Of course, each of these key activities represents a great deal of work on behalf of your team. However, these six steps offer a framework for organising your CDR activities to ensure great outcomes. To learn more about the process in action, reach out to us by emailing rachel@allegoryagency.co.uk. We’re experts in delivering quality Corporate Digital Responsibility strategies for leaders in the technology space. You can also download our latest report on CDR here.

COVID-19 pandemic: Public opinion shifts on data and tech

hand and speech bubbles to represent opinions

The public is broadly supportive of the application of data and technology during COVID-19 but governance and transparency are critical to trust.

Public attitudes towards data and technology have significantly shifted during the COVID-19 crisis thanks to tools aimed at suppressing the virus and coping with its effects.

Data-driven technology has been used effectively in response to the pandemic and to mitigate the impact of lockdown.

These are the headlines of a report called COVID-19 Repository & Public Attitudes published by The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI).

The CDEI has explored the application of data and technology during the pandemic and documented them in a repository. It also conducted a longitudinal survey of public opinion among 12,000 individuals between June and December 2020.

The report records a broad range of applications including contact tracing and an algorithm to determine qualifications in the absence of exams.

Other innovative applications include drones used to deliver medical supplies in remote regions and the creation of health equipment databases to monitor the availability of assets in the NHS.

The CDEI report suggests that the use of digital technology has increased since the start of COVID-19. It suggests that this trend is likely to continue the long-term, pointing to changing attitudes resulting from the benefit observed during the crisis.

Awareness of technology and adoption during COVID-19

Almost three-quarters (72%) of the UK population believe that digital technology has the potential to be used in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a view that is consistent across all demographic groups and regions.

However not everyone thinks that the full potential of data and technology is being realised. Fewer than half (42%) believe that digital technology is making the situation in the UK better, and 39% said they thought the technology is not being used properly.

Governance and transparency critical to public trust

Governance and transparency are the primary concern of the public in ensuring trust in data and technology. Almost a quarter of the public (24%) do not believe that the right rules and regulations are in place to ensure that digital technology is used responsibly in the UK’s COVID-19 response. This is largely consistent across age, region, and gender.

More than two in five people (43%) believe regulation is appropriate. 39% of younger people would know where to raise these complaints if governance was failing. This falls to 14% for older people.

Media coverage of data increased during COVID-19

Social media has seen a boom during the pandemic however when it comes to news consumption, traditional news sources remain the dominant source. Media coverage of artificial intelligence (AI) and data-driven technologies is contributing to public discourse and adoption.

According to the CDEI report there has been a 54% year-on-year increase in the number of articles in UK newspapers reporting on topics such as AI, algorithms, and data. The increase is driven by the pandemic notably among tabloid media.

CDEI is an independent expert committee, led by a board of specialists, set up and tasked by the UK government to investigate and advise on how we maximise the benefits of data-driven technologies.

Are communications professionals prepared for a data breach?

Balloons flying away to depict the escaping of data

Are communications professionals prepared for a data breach?

 

During last week’s keynote speech at the DataComms conference, our CEO Emma Thwaites polled the 200 or so communications professionals in attendance, on how prepared they were to respond to a major crisis situation involving data e.g a data breach.

Only 12% of the audience felt they were very prepared, with almost a third saying they were unprepared. 

 

Why this is a problem

Recent analysis has shown fines imposed by EU authorities under GDPR have increased by 40% in the past year, which tells us:

1. Businesses are being held publicly and financially accountable with increasing frequency

2. Corporate communications teams have another reputational risk to worry about

Like any crisis communications plan, having a good understanding of the risks, mitigating these risks, and being able to respond quickly is key. But as our mini poll suggests, if almost a third of senior communications professionals feel unprepared to deal with these issues, many businesses could be at risk of reputational harm.

 

All businesses aren’t created equal

For organisations with deep pockets, monopolistic positions and loyal users (i.e ‘big tech’), the financial and reputational damage of a GDPR fine is likely to have less of an impact, for now, compared with other sectors. 

Where we see a bigger problem in the short term is in sectors with high levels of competition, where consumers can more easily switch to rival brands without compromising on quality, price, choice or time already invested. Businesses that heavily rely on data and AI, e.g supermarkets, insurance providers or banks, face the highest risk, but it could equally include many smaller businesses too.

Customers, users and investors are becoming much wiser when it comes to Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) – that is, how seriously an organisation takes its responsibility to use and develop data and AI in ways that are safe, trustworthy, ethical and wise. As awareness of CDR grows, so does the likelihood that people will vote with their feet and their wallets when businesses get it wrong.

Here’s a thought: Just as Skyscanner now highlights CO2 emissions of certain routes to help travellers make more eco-friendly choices, what if we also had a CDR score when it comes to renewing our car insurance, or choosing who to bank with?

 

 

What can communications professionals do?

Corporate communications teams work as the enhancer and protector of the company’s reputation. Understanding data and AI, and the potential reputational risks when things go wrong is now very much part of the role. As a starting point for any comms professional thinking about these issues, we’d suggest:

  • Have a good understanding of how your organisation holds and uses data and artificial intelligence
  • Make sure your organisation – from the top to the bottom – understands their responsibility around data and AI, and the potential reputational risks
  • Review your crisis management plan, and make sure your response to any data and AI issues is up-to-date and robust
  • Consider your communication strategy around your organisations’ commitment to taking its corporate digital responsibility seriously

 

If you want to speak with us about any of the points in this blog, please get in touch here.