For years internal communicators have worked hard to be considered trusted advisors. At some level, they’ve wanted their jobs to be much more than sending newsletters or corporate messaging. While those things are important, the best internal communicators have always wanted to communicate in authentic ways that inspire trust.
It’s a challenging goal, especially when you think about the larger context of how well (or not) people today communicate with each other in a highly polarized landscape.
That’s why I was excited to speak recently with Shiv Singh on our Culture, Comms, & Cocktails podcast. Shiv is a senior executive with deep experience in building large brands (at Visa, PepsiCo, etc.), and he’s also co-author of Savvy: Navigating Fake Companies, Fake Leaders and Fake News.
So settle in, and listen to my conversation with Shiv on how to navigate through fake news. You can also register now to hear Shiv speak live at this year’s FutureComms on April 24.
“It couldn’t be a more important time for an internal communicator. This is their time to lead from the front. In the past the internal communicators may not have had the seat at the table that they would have hoped for, because other leaders in the organization may have thought of them as scribes. Today, the rule is much more of a strategist behind the communications. To be a trusted advisor in the post-trust era also means really deeply understanding the meaning of trust, and then what it takes to build trust.”
— Shiv Singh, Founder & CEO, Savvy Matters
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Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Transcript
Chuck Gose: Culture, Comms & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up. So settle in, drink the knowledge (some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist), and enjoy the top shelf guests I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, strategic advisor at SocialChorus. It’s great having today’s guest, Shiv Singh, on the podcast. Shiv is a senior executive with deep experience building large brands and experiences and he’s also coauthor of Savvy: Navigating Fake Companies, Fake Leaders and Fake News. I guarantee you this is not a fake podcast. He is also a speaker at this year’s FutureComms event. Shiv, Welcome to Culture, Comms & Cocktails.
Shiv Singh: Thank you for having me on, Chuck.
Chuck Gose: It’s a treat having you on the podcast, so let’s go ahead and get started. It’s kind of maybe a bit of a sad way to start the conversation. But let’s talk about fake news. It is everywhere. So I’m curious, how do we as employees, as consumers of information, how do we begin to sort out what’s real, what’s not real? Like, is real news the opposite of fake news? I don’t know. I’m curious also, has the definition of fake news changed? Because growing up to me, fake news was like the National Enquirer. You knew it was fake. But now all different kinds of news is called fake. So how do we begin to sort all this out?
Shiv Singh: Yes, it’s depressing but it’s a great question and actually a good way to start this conversation. Firstly, I would say, yes, in popular culture, the definition of fake news has without a doubt evolved, and in recent times we do have a president to thank for some of that and for the popularization of the term as well. In previous cycles, we used to call it propaganda or misinformation or heresy. We’d use all kinds of other words.
What makes the term fake news most powerful and most commonly considered these days is the fact that it is used to describe, by a lot of people, any piece of news that they do not agree with. Which is frightening and shocking that that’s what the criteria has become, but that is sort of the harsh reality. The news that people don’t like, they label as fake news, with the implication being that because they don’t like it, it probably is not real.
Now, having said that, what I would like to add is that it isn’t a black and white issue. It really is a huge spectrum of fakeness in news and information. And by spectrum or continuum, I mean, you can have an article or an editorial or a broadcaster talking about a particular subject and being fact-based for most of it except for one piece. Or it may not be as black and white an issue as a National Enquirer story but it could be in the tone and the way it’s written, or the way the news is expressed, that leads the witness in a particular direction. Or it can be a headline that does not really reflect what’s in the content of the article and it’s really clickbait.
So it takes many different forms. That’s the first part of it. The next question: how do you deal with it? Now, of course, I could spend several hours just answering that one question and we go into it quite a bit in the book, but there are a few things I would share right off the bat. First and foremost, it’s very important to think across entire information ecosystem. From the producer of the information or the news, to the distributor of it, to the consumer of the news or that information.
Whether that’s news in the public domain, like news coming out of the media, or it’s news or information inside of a corporation. At each of those points in the process, there’s potential for failure, and with [that] comes the need to be mindful of how you can protect yourself against it. There’s certain basic best practices to consider. So for example, always consider the source of that piece of information. Consider that publication, consider the author. Has he or she written a lot on that subject before? Is the publication an authority on it?
Next, read beyond and around that headline; it’s extremely important to do that. Thirdly, consider what supporting sources are included in that story. Is it building on what has already been written on the subject? Check the date for when it was published. Sometimes that’s a telltale sign. Think about whether it’s a joke. Sometimes it could be sarcasm, sometimes it could be a parody that we actually end up falling for. [We need to be mindful] of our own biases. How are we interpreting that piece of information? Are we coming to the table with preconceived views based on that subject or that person that’s discussed in it?
Then look at a lot of experts around you to get their input on that or to see what they’re saying about that subject as well. So that’s some of the basics for spotting fake news. What I would say though is, there’s never any easy answer, but the more conscious we are, the more we develop the skills, and through that inoculate ourselves against fake news. We can identify very quickly and move away from it.
Chuck Gose: When we met, you spoke at one of SocialChorus summits last fall. What I thought was very interesting and also equally frightening [were] things you shared about how quickly fake news spreads. I believe it was even at a faster rate than real news. So is it because again, people aren’t putting in the due diligence and looking at it and verifying and looking at the context of it that they’re sharing it and spreading this news even that much more quickly or why is it that fake news spreads quicker than real news?
Shiv Singh: Yes. So I shared this wonderful study done by a few academics at MIT, where they looked at 126,000 news headlines shared on Twitter over a 10-year period. What they found was that, yes, the fake news spreads seven times more quickly than the real news. What was most frightening about that wasn’t just that difference. It was more the fact that the fake news was being spread not by bots or Russians or foreign agents trying to disrupt an election, but by regular people like you and me.
It’s through that, that we developed one of the many sharp insights in our book, which is that we as regular people carry responsibility in this fake era as well. We’re the ones spreading the fake news and who aren’t doing what I would consider our due diligence in terms of understanding the information, processing it, looking at it critically, and only then choosing to share it. We live in an age where we’ve all become, each of us individually, we are like many media companies, but we haven’t done our own media training. We haven’t different developed enough media literacy to be careful and sensitive about what and how and where we share. It’s not malicious but it is still problematic and can have massive damaging ramifications.
Chuck Gose: A lot of communicators every year look at Edelman Trust Barometer. I’m curious, what do you mean when you use the term post-trust era? Where does that come from?
Shiv Singh: Sure. I’ve followed the Edelman Trust Barometer for, I don’t know, probably two decades now. I think it’s a fascinating study that’s worth following year after year. It comes out in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. What we found in our research and in also looking at the Edelman Trust Barometer, which we talked about a bit in the book, is that over the last decade, trust has been waning. And a lot of this traces back to the 2009 financial crisis, at least for us here in the [United] States. Where all of a sudden, well it wasn’t that sudden, but Main Street was frightened and disrupted and shaken by the financial crisis and the subprime mortgages and what it was doing to their lives.
As that happened, they also couldn’t believe how many more billionaires were propping up in certain pockets of the country, as well as how no one was truly taking responsibility for that financial crisis. It appeared as Main Street was feeling the pain caused by Wall Street, but no one on Wall Street or government, for that matter, because they carried some responsibility, were being held accountable. So that triggered this sort of withering away of trust or the fabric of trust. It was withering away trust in the government, trust in big businesses, and then also, to a certain extent, trust in the media. The media piece was tied to the fact that people stopped believing what they were reading in the papers because it didn’t always match what they were experiencing.
What I mean by that is, as just one example, my wife grew up on the Pittsburgh, West Virginia border. In the mainstream national publications, both TV as well as print, they would talk about this as the longest economic boom and how fabulous it was and all that it was doing to the U.S. economy and the NASDAQ was shooting up to the sky. But if you walked the streets in that town, a [little] coal mining town, you would not get that impression. You wouldn’t get that impression by the economic health of that town or by talking to people in that town as well. So that was where you had the story of the two Americas and it sort of created this breakdown of trust.
Coupled with that, and, of course, it’s hard to talk about this without getting into politics a little bit. There were certain political leaders that played up on those fears. They created the impression that the media in of itself is been doctoring and creating narratives to really convince people of a particular ideology. Now, that was true to a certain extent and it happened for a few different reasons. In broadcast [news], there were certain broadcast channels that were doing that because it made awesome economic sense. The more sensationalist the news was, the more people would gravitate to it. News had started to become entertainment in many ways. It was no more just the facts itself.
Another example of how it was manifesting itself was that, along with the news becoming entertainment, you all so had the major print newspapers struggling in the internet era. The traditional TV advertising dollars are crumbling and the digital advertising dollars were pennies on the dollar in terms of what money they were bringing in. As a result, they couldn’t support as many journalists, they couldn’t do as much deep reporting, and they couldn’t also do as much fact-checking.
As a result, we found ourselves in this environment where producing and distributing news have become so cheap, thanks to the internet. The quality of the production have dropped dramatically because there weren’t enough investments going into it, and they were as a result, less quality news, a lot more of it and hard for individuals to know what was fact and what is fiction. That’s what led to in 2016 the Oxford Dictionary anointing the word “post-truth” as the [international] word of the year.
Now, when that happened, and I’m coming back to the Edelman Trust Barometer again, when people didn’t know what the truth was, they sort of [reverted] to what was familiar to them. What they knew and were comfortable with. What they knew and were comfortable with was what was in the echo chambers and their own filter bubbles, often in social media. In those filter bubbles and those echo chambers, they found other people who would endorse and support their opinion. We were stepping back into a narrow bubble all over again, sort of similar to what would happen centuries ago.
With that, we would only trust for those familiar with us because anything that wasn’t familiar, we wouldn’t be able to tell whether that was fact or fiction. That’s how we landed up in this post-trust era. So, yes, it started in 2009. That was, I’d say, a key moment in the States. In Europe, it was with Brexit and at least in the U.K. and different factors elsewhere. But it started in 2009, and it quickly kept on growing and growing. Of course, technology made it happen more quickly. But that’s how when we didn’t know what was the truth, it led us to this place where we didn’t know who to trust except those we’re really familiar with us. That’s what we refer to as the state of being that we are in, the post-trust era.
Chuck Gose: You said something about the two Americas and it got me thinking, I wonder if a lot of companies employees might see it as two companies. They see the leaders saying one thing, they see internal communicators communicating those things, but then their experience is very different from what maybe they read about the company or they hear from their leaders. In the past, I guess I would have called this, gossip or rumor mill, what some communicators would have said, also now can the term fake news be used. So, as an internal communicator, what can they do to battle this concept maybe have two companies or this post-trust era or is there something they can do to put a lid on fake news and actually provide and be a source of trust and truth to employees?
Shiv Singh: Yeah. I think, Chuck, that’s a really good point because you’re absolutely right. There are exact parallels within companies. Which is why, when we wrote the book, we talked about fake companies and what happens in them. So there are few things to consider. So firstly, what contributed to the breakdown of trust in organizations is this immense disparity between what an entry level worker may earn versus what the CEO may. It’s a multiple that’s mind boggling, the CEO salary over the entry-level workers.
The second piece is just as it’s the case with the public web or the outside world, in an organization, today there are many more communication channels outside of the official channels. And for every official story or official piece of information communicated, there may be five, 10, [or] 15 unofficial channels. The water cooler hasn’t totally gone digital, I would say; it has also multiplied many times. Those unofficial digital communication channels are created by people who have their own point of view, their own perspective, and typically there’s nothing wrong with that.
But when a company doesn’t have a strong moral fabric or strong ethical foundation, those unofficial channels become the real ones and become much more important. An extreme example that we talk about in the book is, of course, what happened to Uber a few years ago, where Travis and the leadership team, they were doing a whole lot of things that weren’t exactly the right things. That led to the creation of informal channels and to an extreme point where Susan Fowler went and shared her own experience publicly on Medium.com [in a blog post]. If you looked at how Glassdoor was talking about Uber, you would see the unofficial communications happening all the time and the tone that it would take.
A different example is with Theranos, where what Elizabeth Holmes and her leadership team tried to do was to shut down any communication between functions and teams because they were fearful of what information was spread between them. Again, a very, very wrong approach. So that’s all the bad stuff. How can a company have more real news versus fake news and create a more real culture versus a fake culture? There are a few things to consider. The first is to appreciate that your employees when it comes to news and information may have their own biases.
It is important that when you’re communicating to them in this era of fake news, where we are all struggling with telling the difference between what is fact and what is fiction, or what is true and false or what’s misinformation. It is very important to communicate in a much more fact-based, evidence-driven fashion and with humility and with transparency than the company or the leadership may have felt they needed to in the past. So, what does that mean? A great example is just as, when we started this conversation, you asked me how can a person tell the difference between what is fact and fiction, what is real and fake news?
An example of how an internal communicator can help his or her leadership team communicate to the organization effectively would be to include supporting sources in that communication. Have third-party experts or internal experts referenced. [Include] a link to other sources. Have someone who’s considered the authority on that subject lead the communication on the conversation. Test the communication with a whole bunch of employees at all levels so that it doesn’t have any biases built into it. So that’s one part of it.
The other thing that the communicators can consider doing is making the informal channels more formal. I’ve spent 20-odd years working in organizations with thousands and hundreds of thousands of employees on the [MarComm] leadership team and working across cultures and hundred countries. What I found is, there will always be those informal communication channels, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’re often full of very good constructive conversations and there’s an opportunity to elevate them and put them in the limelight without trying to control those conversations. When you do that, there’s a certain shared ownership that develops that just strengthens the companies, strengthens its moral fabric and allows two-way communications and learnings and knowledge sharing to happen much more organically and in constructive ways.
Chuck Gose: I think the concept of sharing communication is probably a new one for some internal communicators, where they’re very much used to be the gatekeepers for information that’s being shared in organizations. One of the things we preach is more empowering others to be communicators, and I would think then maybe that greater variety would lead to some credibility and trust versus it just coming from that one place all the time. But what do you see as the role of the internal communicator now in this post-trust era?
Shiv Singh: I would say, it couldn’t be a more important time for an internal communicator. In many respects, this is their time to lead from the front. The reason I say that is, while in the past the internal communicators may not have had the seat at the table that they would have hoped for, because other leaders in the organization may have thought of them as scribes—I mean, I’m being facetious, here—or just note takers, or folks who communicate a message not truly crafted. Today, the rule is much more of a strategist behind the communications.
Just to give you an example of this, everyone’s talking about Facebook these days and the good and where they can improve. But I want to share an example from several years ago when that movie on Mark Zuckerberg came out, The Social Network. It was not a very flattering view of Mark Zuckerberg by any means. Facebook had already gotten quite large and Facebook was concerned about how their own employees would interpret the movie and through that, what it would do to Mark’s internal reputation.
They developed what I consider to be the most phenomenal strategy. They took all their employees and Mark took them to watch the movie together. Now, he couldn’t control the message in the movie, of course, but by taking his employees to it, he showed that he knew what that movie was about. That he was willing to engage in a conversation about that movie and that he wasn’t trying to hide something that was out there in the marketplace. That had a really positive effect on his employees and it was a very confident move.
That’s an example of a really smart strategy and something… It’s a type of thinking that communicators are going to be asked to do much more of, especially now in a time where we will increasingly get more and more information about our company and our leaders from sources outside of the company and within it as well. Therefore, having that open source, an open mind becomes very important. But then also knowing how to convince and guide the business leadership in an organization on what to do differently compared to the way they may have grown up becomes a really important skill to develop as well.
Chuck Gose: I know that fits quite nicely into what a lot of internal communicators for years have been saying, they want to be seen as that trusted advisor. It becomes less of a doing job and more of a thinking-and-strategy job, which I think should work well for companies and work well for the profession. So they’re less of the pushing the buttons and hitting send and doing the writing, but as you said, more of that strategy behind the communications. Being able to see things from all angles to then help employees take in all of those messages and start to understand where the valuable information is, where the real stuff is, and then where the fake stuff is.
Shiv Singh: Without a doubt. Another part of this also is, to be a trusted advisor in the post-trust era also means really deeply understanding the meaning of trust, and then what it takes to build trust. What it takes to then also rebuild it once you lose it, and how you can be on guard about it always. I’d humbly suggest, Chuck, that trust is probably one of the most overused words in corporations and among communicators, well, I would say all business leaders. But not enough of us actually truly understand the meaning, how fast works, the dynamics of it and how to rebuild it especially when it’s broken.
Chuck Gose: Well, one of the things I did want to mention as we talk about this, you’re going to be one of the featured speakers at this year’s FutureComms. So I’ll get to see you in April in New York City. At the event, what are you most looking forward to being a part of FutureComms this year?
Shiv Singh: I can’t wait for FutureComms. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. Of course, I can’t wait to hear the other speakers and everything that they will be saying. But more than that, I can’t wait to hear from the communicators attending and their points of view on how trust works in organizations for them, what they are seeing as having changed in the post-trust era, and how technology when used effectively can make all the difference. So I couldn’t be more excited about FutureComms.
Chuck Gose: Very much what we’ve talked about today is this future state of what internal communications, I think, could and should be as it evolves where maybe 20, 30 years ago, it was about publishing or thought of being the scribe or note taker, which you talked about. To now hopefully being that strategy behind the message behind the leaders, behind the employees and being the ones that help facilitate and build on the communication practices. So Shiv, I wanted to thank you for your contributions. I already just placed an order on Amazon for your book earlier today so I can read it before I see you in April.
We had an amazing recommendation from Kyla Turner, the last Culture, Comms, & Cocktails podcast guest, with her El Diablo Cocktail. So, I’m curious, Shiv. No pressure, here. But what’s your favorite cocktail? What’s one you recommend people try out?
Shiv Singh: Chuck, that’s the most difficult question you’ve asked me on this podcast. I’m starting to sweat. But I feel I have to share something. Here’s mine and it’s probably not as dramatic or crazy as last week. But I recently had an opportunity to try Chai Martini, which I loved. So that’s Chai, as in those tea bags. It was a martini and it had a bit of vodka on it. It had liqueur in it, the crushed ice, some nutmeg. It was just amazing.
Chuck Gose: Do you remember where you had this Chai Martini?
Shiv Singh: It was actually at a friend’s place.
Chuck Gose: Even better.
Shiv Singh: Yes. He’s from India and he said it’s available in India quite a bit, but I never come across it. I found it fabulous.
Chuck Gose: Chai Martini. That is a that is a new one for me. It’s almost like last year, I was in Kelowna, British Columbia, and someone encouraged me to try an avocado margarita. I’m not a margarita drinker but I will say it was the best margarita I’ve ever had. Again, not even a crazy avocado person either. But yeah, sometimes you get those little mixtures in there and they can be pretty amazing.
Shiv Singh: What I like about the avocado one is, it sort of creates the impression that you’re drinking healthy even if you’re not. I love that. Another way to rationalize it.
Chuck Gose: Well, Shiv, thanks again for being a guest on Culture, Comms & Cocktails. I look forward to seeing you this coming April at FutureComms.
Shiv Singh: Thank you so much for having me on. I can’t wait for it.
Register today to hear Shiv speak at FutureComms April 24 at Gotham Hall in New York City. And listen to all our podcast episodes:
It’s All About Love in an All New Culture, Comms Podcast
Why CIOs Should Care About Employee Communications
Serving Up Culture and Communications to Frontline Workers