Facts in the age of opinion

A company founder connected recently. They were wary of a few regulatory issues that they feared the firm might get caught up with – and felt nervous about the potential impact on their brand. Perception management was perceived to be the big matter at hand – the business was built on trust, and reputation was of paramount importance. The ideal crisis management approach of lining up the facts, framing up scenarios and assessing options based on risks & recovery opportunities was considered – but the big focus was on managing perceptions.  

That set me thinking about whether facts and information mattered anymore. I admit – my faith in facts and information had been chipping away for a while. I can’t understand why stock markets continue to fire in an economy which seems destined for the ICU and some severe open-heart (pun intended) reforms. Yet it does. I cannot fathom why a generation of the youngest but least skilled and most prone to unemployment citizens continue to have blind faith in a government that does not seem to have a plan. Yet they do. 

But enough on that. I’m not here to pontificate. I am here to make a point or few. 

Facts and information matters most in a crisis – or should matter most, because

  1. Strength of conviction is like Insurance. Scenario planning, media management, a brave communications stand, and forthright engagement – backed by solid uncontrivable facts – may be the hard way to win… but it is a surefire way to win. Of course you have to plan, strategy is critical… but the strength of conviction that your spokespeople have when you have your facts lined up to your messages gives you a confidence boost much like a solid insurance plan. Ask the All England Lawn Tennis Association, which organises the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which received an in£114 million insurance payout of around £114 million (US$142 million) for this year’s cancelled tournament. They paid ~£2 million in premiums for 17 years, but it stood them in good stead eventually.
  2. Collective intelligence is often wrong. Your best bet is to believe your facts and trust your wit. Solomon Asch’s famous Conformity Experiment and other similar ones have shown that the social influence of other people shifted people’s perception: rather than merely conforming to a social “norm,” the participants actually saw what the other people saw. There was activity in the brain region associated with sight, and no activity in the brain region associated with decision-making (which would have to be the case if they’d consciously decided to conform). You can avoid the herd if you have better information about your business and liabilities than them. It is the opposite of insider trading… and completely legal too!
  3. Assimilating new information. Thomas Bayes wrote the Bayesian approach in the 18th century to provide a mathematical framework for updating one’s beliefs in a rational way as new information comes in. No one will have all the facts in the beginning – especially in a crisis. Multiple players, vested interests, interactions and paper trails ensure that piecing the story together takes time. But being fact based in the first instance means that one is better prepared to integrate the rest of them as they come in, when they come in… which helps makes the whole story solid, base to top.
  4. Data matters but it is the narrative that makes it stick. Like any of us who love court-room dramas and jury trial movies, we know that facts matter only when woven into a compelling narrative. But the facts have got to be accurate and defensible… else the whole house of cards could come toppling down. Unless there is rigour and quantity to the information, the story will come through as lazy, unsubstantiated speculation.
  5. Understand who your real stakeholders are. Sometimes media is not the audience to cater for. Often, being able to understand the real stakeholders in your business – the investors, the regulators, the customers and the partners – is more important. Being sincere, humble and fact-based in your communication to the people who matter to your business – in the face of fire, especially undeserved fire – often means that you stand a better chance of countering even wanton media speculation effectively because you have your end covered.

Crisis management is almost entirely common-sense. When the proverbial is about to hit the fan, getting the facts lined up right allows you the leeway to plan your scenarios – which buys you precious response time and a broader spread of options right at the outset to chart a course to safety for your firm.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Amit Narayan
Partner & Managing Director, South Asia at Control Risks
Amit manages consultants who design, develop and implement risk-mitigation strategies for companies across South Asia. He has advised clients on political and regulatory risk, pre-investment risk, reputational DD, forensic investigations, public policy and stakeholder mapping. Amit has worked in Edelman in India and Burson-Marsteller in Singapore. He has also worked in-house at Vodafone in Singapore and The Walt Disney Company in Hong Kong.

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