The court of public opinion

A company may have the facts on its side, but that doesn't mean the public is listening.

A company may have the facts on its side, but that doesn't mean the public is listening.

In a consumer-powered world, truth and opinion have frequently merged into a concept, coined by comedian Steve Colbert as "truthiness": that which one feels to be true, rather than knows to be true.

Earlier this year, fact and opinion waged a public war when it became known that the Dubai Ports company was poised to purchase six US ports. It is still unclear whether politicians drummed up a fervor against the deal or whether the public, wary of global terrorism, was unwilling to give the deal the benefit of the doubt.

Regardless, by the time Dubai Ports' PR teams sprung into action, it was too late. Negative public opinion had already tainted the deal.

"With Dubai [Ports], you had a combustible combination of an Arab company and potential terrorist target," says David Shapiro, Brunswick Group partner. "That's the kind of combination that can be exploited."

Shapiro says that the fact that the United Arab Emirates was an ally to the US in the fight against terrorism and that national government agencies like the US Coast Guard would ultimately control security at the ports did not adequately influence the public.

During the ongoing controversy, Dubai Ports AOR Bell Pottinger handled media inquiries, but declined to comment about its work for this story.

Shapiro says incidents such as this show perceptions can matter as much as the facts, making it imperative that PR professionals drill home this point to their non-communications colleagues. He says that with a lot of transactions, the people concerned worry only about potential roadblocks in their own areas, such as bankers worrying about the numbers and lawyers worrying about the approval process.

"It's not as common as it should be for bankers and lawyers to factor in public opinion's [ability] to screw up what they're working on," Shapiro says.

Smart companies will read this as a need to include PR professionals in all decisions, as the good ones can acutely predict public sentiment.

Another area often beset with a struggle between facts and beliefs is the healthcare arena, where scientists clash with religious leaders and disability advocates over when life is created, as well as abortion and genetic engineering.

"It does come up in healthcare a lot with the stem-cell area," says Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG Life. "A lot of people have the belief, based on science, that stem cells are going to be useful to treat and cure diseases."

But that is only one side of the debate, Russo says.

He adds, "[The other side] is sometimes promulgated by religious or other parties that see the world very differently, and understanding of science is colored by their beliefs."

"Broadly, when it comes to life, in general, the truth does not necessarily set you free," says Peter Pitts, MS&L SVP and former associate commissioner for external relations at the Food and Drug Administration. "Sometimes the truth is complicated and counterintuitive."

In healthcare, Pitts says, the truth is often based on science and economics, both of which are complicated to explain.

"What people in PR have to understand, especially in healthcare, is not only do you have to have the facts on your side, you have to know how to communicate them," Pitts says. [Some believe] if we explain the facts, economics, and science, that's all we have to do."

"If the facts don't speak for themselves, then how they're presented or delivered is as important as the data or facts," says Mark Rozeen, SVP of research for GolinHarris.

"People understand how to manipulate the media in ways so stories are not necessarily based on the facts," Pitts says, adding that those combating science often prepare pithy sound bites that ring true and are easily digested.

"With drug importation, people will say the solution is to buy cheap Canadian drugs, which sounds like a workable solution," he adds. "I could explain why drug importation is a bad idea, but once it's put into their minds, it is tough to change."

While the science debate often seemingly pits scientists against conservatives, liberals like environmentalists have also had brushes with bunk science.

One of the most well-known examples is the Brent Spar incident, where, in 1995, Shell UK, supported by the British government, wanted to sink an oil storage buoy to create an artificial reef that would benefit the environment. But the environmentalist community, led by Greenpeace, campaigned successfully against it.

Members of Shell's global communications team declined to discuss how the event has changed its global communications today, but a representative directed questions to its expansive Brent Spar microsite, where the oil company enumerated on the lessons learned from the event. The facts were complicated, and Shell was considered less credible than the NGO.

On that Web site, Fran Morrison, Shell UK's former media and communications manager, wrote: "Greenpeace used our plan to inflame public feelings about the 'ethics' of waste disposal, and the Spar became a lightning rod for wider concerns about public policy, authority and control. Because the decision-making hadn't been opened up proactively, with explanations, external input, and debate, people were more easily misled by exaggerated claims."

Rozeen says Golin's research has shown that while companies that have earned credibility will get the benefit of the doubt more, it does not ensure that the public will completely believe all truths they present. So corporate spokespeople have to put themselves in the shoes of the people who might oppose the facts.

He suggests figuring out, "What are the types of things they need to hear, and what is the best way to deliver that information?

"Facts have emotional connotation as well," Rozeen adds, warning that some companies be- come so obsessed with being right, and proving it, that they lose touch with how they're being heard. "You have to show a meaningful type of empathy, especially in a crisis."

The facts about facts

Facts have little value unless they're communicated clearly in a consumable way

Companies, especially in healthcare, need to understand that sometimes their opponents are driven by faith

Empathy, not a passionate rebuttal, is often the best way to interact with opposition

Initial ambivalence does not preclude a furor later

Good will for complicated issues that come up in the future can be garnered by building public trust

Sometimes the appearance of trying to reach a consensus can be more influential than the actual facts

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