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Career decision making in the age of misinformation

We are living in an era where misinformation, or worse yet, disinformation campaigns are far too common. From the mudslinging in politics, to the safety — or lack thereof — of e-cigarettes and vaping, to innovative startups disrupting Wall Street, how do you know where the truth lies? And when it comes to your career in the communication industry, how do you know you are working for the “good guy”? 

In politics, we have seen the influence and resulting impact of hyper-targeted digital content that not only defines the candidate, but colors the nature and track record — true or not — of the opponent. The voter is left to do their own homework, select the most compelling narrative, and discern the facts as best they can. And employees find themselves in the same position. 

Fortunately, the significance of mis- and disinformation campaigns in politics has been thrust onto the public agenda, and there is a call for greater transparency in social media and digital content. 

However, misinformation strategies are used well beyond politics, and the deception is not always digitally driven. As in the case with Theranos, even highly respected journalists and successful investors can fall victim to the scam. Even Theranos’ own employees were deceived by misinformation espoused by a few individuals at the top of the company. 

The good news for business is that with greater awareness of the problem comes an enhanced focus on the development of solutions to help discern the facts. For example, data analytics firms have developed early detection tools for digital activations and the increasing use of artificial intelligence in reporting allows for a deeper level of research through data scraping and analytics. 

But as an individual, without access to those tools, how do we safeguard our decision making when it comes to our own careers? If communications professionals mistakenly accept a position working for a company that uses misinformation or disinformation as a strategy, not only have they damaged their career, but they are also complicit in the deception. 

So to help guide your career decision making in this age of misinformation, you need to rethink your approach to critical thinking. 

Seek alternative views

Question everything, taking nothing for granted. Is there evidence to support every point? Do you get the same answer to your questions from multiple parties, both inside and outside of the company? Probe your own network to identify former employees who may be in your broader professional network. To further vet the information you have gathered, contact outsiders who are familiar with the company, including agency partners, industry associations and media that have covered the company. They will have different perspectives and will give you additional color beyond just business operations. 

Follow the money

If the position is with a company that is publicly traded, read the SEC filings and listen to earnings calls, including recordings or transcripts from previous quarters. Look for consistency in business strategy, and pay particular attention to Form 10-K which details operations and risk exposure. Review business media coverage including the comments on articles. If possible, review analyst reports.T hen talk to your own financial advisor, particularly if they work for a big investment firm. Understand who is investing in the company and why. 

Calibrate strategies

Develop a high-level scenario plan for three risks facing the company, mapping out your recommended communications strategies. 

Craft the messaging for each scenario. Then discuss the scenarios and messaging with the company’s communications and leadership team to evaluate how closely their response aligns with your approach. 

Assess the values

Most companies have adopted a set of corporate values. How readily the leadership and employees can relay them to a candidate is telling. Values-based organizations make it a priority to weave messaging about their values into their communications. Also look closely at the department or team-level and consider the ethics and values that need to be instilled through all levels of a communications organization to ensure it is only communicating the truth. 

Create a safety net

Once you make a career decision and move into the new position, put the necessary checks and balances in place that will stand the test of time. Situations change, executive transitions occur, and businesses encounter headwinds. As a result, strategies may change, and it is important to create a safety net to identify misinformation as quickly as possible. Make use of the technology and listening tools at your disposal. Build a values-centered organization, hiring professionals not just for what they do, but also for how they do it. Establish a confidential process for raising concerns. And reinforce company values. 

As we evaluate job opportunities in this age of misinformation, we must rethink our approach to critical thinking, seek out multiple points of view, and build values-based safeguards into our organizations. 

This more rigorous approach to career decision making is essential to ensure the integrity of our profession, protect careers, and fulfill our obligation to provide only truth-based communications to the audiences we serve. 

To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

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Megan Jordan is head of communications at West Coast University, one of the largest US college networks specialized in educating students pursuing healthcare professions.