How fast does news travel? In 2017, a video of a prank in which a character from horror movie franchise The Ring emerged from a dummy TV set in a Los Angeles store racked up 200 million views in 24 hours. In other words, it averaged 231 views every second.
Prank videos are not really news, but the principle remains the same. Information circumnavigates the world in an instant and, worryingly, research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that fake news travels six times faster than true stories. Yet many businesses still operate on a much slower news cycle and are paying the price. The best way to avoid this trap – sales pitch alert! – is to start thinking like a media company. (And Wonderly can certainly help you with that.)
In terms of the evolution of our species, the internet is still very new. If you wanted to send a message in the third century, as Henri Jean Martin noted in The History and the Power of Writing, you would have to skin a young goat, rub the skin clean, remove all the hairs and wash it with a lime-based substance to create a parchment. After that, all you needed to do was find something to write with. In this case, to tweak Marshal McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium restricted the message. You would hardly go to all that effort just to share a bit of gossip.
In January 1793, when Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris, it took, historian Graham Robb estimates, three days for that earth-shattering news to spread across France. Distributed by messengers on horseback, word of the execution probably travelled, Robb estimates, at around 11mph.
Fast forwarding, in slightly macabre fashion, to another royal death – that of George V on 20 January 1936 – we can trace the acceleration of news distribution. At around 11pm, the King’s doctor Bertrand Dawson injected him with a lethal combination of cocaine and morphine. He wanted to spare his patient a slow, agonising death and ensure that the King’s demise was announced in a suitably dignified manner in the next day’s The Times. (His wife rang the newspaper to warn that the announcement was imminent.) Readers of The Thunderer learned of the King’s demise over their breakfast – less than nine hours after it happened.
The media landscape has changed completely since 1936. Sadly, the way companies communicate with their customers – be they consumers or businesses – the media and everyone else, hasn’t.
Too many organisations behave as if news still travels at 11mph. The internet was barely a thing in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez spilled 35,000 metric tonnes of oil off the Alaskan coast, yet the oil giant still overestimated its ability to control the narrative. An initial announcement that “35 miles of beaches are environmentally clean”– not great news given that 1,300 miles of shoreline were polluted – was followed by the risible admission that this didn’t mean “every oil stain is off every rock”.
Today, when the internet is most definitely a thing, the punishments for such blunders are swifter and more brutal than ever. The furore over Gillette’s “The best a man can be” advert illustrates this perfectly. Within five days of its release in January, it had been downvoted 330,000 times on YouTube and the inevitable Piers Morgan had tweeted: “Let’s be clear: @gillette wants every man to take one of their razors and cut off their testicles.”
The ad itself, as GQ’s Cam Wolf noted, merely requests “men to not be awful, which is apparently too much to ask.” It was clumsy, and a bit hectoring in tone but at no point – sorry to labour the point Piers, but facts are facts – does it advocate castration.
The more egregious mistake Gillette made was to ignore a narrative that began to emerge several years before on Saturday Night Live. With sketches and parodies, writers and performers began mocking Gillette razors as too expensive, too complicated and cornily marketed. This storyline helped legitimise startups Dollar Shave and Harry’s, who portrayed themselves as authentic, entertaining challengers taking on a dull, rich monopoly.
By the time, Gillette – and its parent company Procter & Gamble – challenged this narrative, its US market share had shrunk from 70% in 2008 to 50% in 2018 (according to Euromonitor). Before the company tried to change its image with “the best a man can be” – not exactly a radical leap from “the best a man can get” – it cut prices by 12%. The company was upfront about this – “You told us our blades were too expensive and we listened” – but customers (of which, full disclosure, I used to be one) may still feel disgruntled by the tacit admission that they had been overcharged for years.
Gillette’s travails are merely one example of how the internet and social media have changed the game. (The blowback against Pepsi’s absurdly offensive advert showing Kendall Jenner pacifying police and protesters at a faux Black Lives Matter rally with a can of the fizzy drink was so brutal the ad was swiftly withdrawn.) The narrative about companies – what they stand for, how they behave, whether they are trendy or dull, authentic or phony – has effectively been crowdsourced. Influencers, customers, suppliers, rivals, regulators, politicians, employees and managers all have their say.
And in this hysterical new world, speed trumps truth. As James Gleick, author of Faster and The Information, says: “There has never been so much pressure to speak before one knows.” Companies are never short of things they can spend money on, but if they’re not investing in telling stories about themselves, they create an opportunity for other people to tell stories for – and about – them. As one consultant told me: “Companies don’t realise that that new product they’ve been working on for so long can be ridiculed to death in a few days on social media.”
In an era when Jonathan Swift’s observation “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it” has never felt so resonant, is that a risk that businesses want to take?