Why the age of manufactured outrage is over
In recent years a single, semi-agnst fuelled social media post would send corporate PR types into a crisis spin. From bad reviews to unhappy customers, social media became the proverbial washing line where disgruntled customers hung their brand’s dirty laundry – posted for all to see – in the hopes of a freebie, a quick resolution to their issue or to simply gather a few hundred reactions and five minutes of social fame.
Serial complainers would invite their pitchfork wielding online friends to offline boycotts while running sophisticated bullying and intimidation campaigns. The news media would pick up the story and suddenly you and your slug in a pre-packed lettuce bag were trending in Iceland and Uruguay.
It was a crisis frenzy. Businesses and corporates doing the wrong thing were publically named and shamed – some deservingly, but mostly it was just noise.
The amount of time committed to these pitchfork wielding endeavours was significant on both sides of the fence: the complainers and their online entourages made a full-time hobby out of manufacturing outrage while brands, companies and organisations hired full-time communications staff to deal with the volume of issues social media incubated.
But not anymore.
We’ve reached peak manufactured outrage.
And audiences have started scrolling past, tuning out and moving on.
Outrage was in vogue – but it’s mentally exhausting
With the majority of news headlines neither fitting the definition of news or newsworthiness, scandal and outrage has been on the menu ever since clicks became profitable.
Donald Trump has built an empire on disingenuous exaggeration and almost every political party has this tried and tested routine rehearsed to perfection. As former President Barack Obama pointed out recently:
Right before the (US) election, they try to scare the heck out of you. And then the election comes, and suddenly the problem is magically gone. Everything’s great. ‘I’m sorry, what did we say?
Kayne West has also climbed aboard the train headed for downtown confusion after a rough few months deciding if slavery is indeed a choice or not:
- October 31: My eyes are now wide open and now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative !!!
- November 5: McDonald’s is my favourite restaurant.
- November 9: Remove stress.
- November 9: Raise confidence and consciousness.
Even our own Honey Badger couldn’t escape the outrage when as ‘The Bachelor’ he failed to find true love on a reality television show.
I’ve never been in a mental space as low (as during filming of the reality tv datingshow)… It wouldn’t be fair to enter into something that months down the track I would be breaking her heart…
It’s impossible to comprehend how NOT finding true love on a reality tv show could have happened! Gasp! Cue Australian media melting down – embarrassingly – for weeks.
With so many broken faux promises and an endless stream of manufactured outrage to digest – some of which is neither truly outrageous nor newsworthy, public trust has become the casualty in the war on truth. The majority of what we read is rubbish. The Edelman 2018 Trust Barometer gives us some key insights into why:
- People trust NGO’s, Businesses, Government and the Media (in that order) less than in 2017.
- The Media is now the least trusted institution globally. You read that right – not lawyers or telemarketers or real estate agents – the Media.
- 65% of people don’t know if what they are reading is true or false.
- 58% of people can’t identify a respected source of information vs a manufactured source.
Often a tactic of military, political and diplomatic communications, the ‘confuse or bemuse’ strategy has gone mainstream. The Russians call this “Maskirovka” which literally means ‘disguise/masking.’
When the truth is inconvenient or unpalatable, you don’t need to tell people what to think – only what to think about. The result is the deliberate diversion and misrepresentation of the facts that builds new, or tears down existing, perceptions in a way that leaves people somewhat confused as to what to actually believe. Add information volume into the mix and you have a perfectly aligned headache.
The antithesis of truth – Maskirovka – when it’s hitting you in Dolby-like surround sound on tv, radio, social media and online news, is exhausting.
With 73% of Australians identifying they had experienced one or more types of ‘fake news’ (the global average is 74%) it’s easy to understand how manufactured news with questionable intent creates cognitive dissonance (mental stress) which leads to audience disengagement.
If the information being presented doesn’t appeal to you, you tune out and into information that you are more comfortable with. Conversely, if the information presented resonates, you dive further into that echo chamber whether it is factual or not.
Either way, audiences have become self-fulfilling echo chambers.
We read and digest more of what we like, even if it is outlandish or wrong – simply because it’s less mentally taxing to avoid having to think about things in any great depth.
Brands, organisations and companies have wised up
Gone are the days of getting discounts and freebies in response to a social complaint or bad review. The private sector have wised up and now know that anyone with that goal in mind doesn’t hold a genuine intent to resolve their issue.
Audiences may think they can be bought, but industry have launched a resistance – building a resilience to things said about them online by people who in the larger scheme of things, really don’t matter much at all.
While they are still savvy to trending issues being an early warning sign for systemic problems, they aren’t in a rush to placate hot under the collar keyboard warriors like they use to.
They’ve also wised up to presenting audiences with information deluges and actively avoid creating mental stress or cognitive dissonance with their communications in any way. Instead of spending time, money and resources placating the pitchfork brigade, savvy corporates and organisations have returned to what they used to do – telling stories that resonate with audiences emotionally and leave them with a feeling.
That feeling is what they want us to feel when we think of their brand. This isn’t new, nor is it immune to fake news, but it is a distinctly different strategy to the mainstream outrage churn.
Like many Australians, I’d never heard of ‘John Lewis and Partners’ before their 2018 Christmas commercial featuring the original Rocket Man himself, Elton John. I don’t know what their business is, but I feel after watching this video that they are wealthy, trustworthy, nice and optimistic folk.
The truth is still out there
In the times ahead as manufactured outrage dives off its peak and into the abyss, savvy corporates will adjust their crisis communications strategies. Leaning on the resilience they’ve been building, they’ll pick their online battles – even when the media comes calling – and back their people.
They won’t let pitchfork wielding keyboard warriors hijack their workforce.
They will push back against stories and facts that don’t add up – that aren’t verifiable.
They will stand up proudly for their values with transparency. No one needs to catch them out, admitting failure or less than ideal outcomes will be made before the first journalist calls their media department.
The feeling they leave their audiences with won’t be a Maskirovka.
Because savvy organisations know that the truth – however uncomfortable – is a revelation to an audience so used to spin, that it will refresh and reinvigorate their brand.
Most importantly, it will leave audiences with a feeling. That there are good people, behind the brand – people who can be trusted to do the right thing.
Social media is a trust based economy.
The truth is still out there – are you courageous enough to embrace it?