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Q&A with Edelman, EVP of US Public Affairs and Senior Policy Strategist, Anne MacDonald


Anne MacDonald, EVP and Senior Policy Strategist, U.S. Public Affairs at Edelman, joined us for a (virtual) sit-down where we talked internet dynamics, misinformation, and how brands can stay ahead.

Q: How have the new dynamics of social media created both opportunities and challenges for brands?

A: Across a span of sectors and clients, we’ve seen social media emerge as a powerful way for brands to connect with consumers. With traditional newsroom jobs on the decline (the number of newsroom employees dropped 51% from 2008 to 2019), brands see social media as an increasingly promising avenue to help them build their own platform to directly engage with their audiences.

This opportunity with social media doesn’t come without its fair share of challenges. We’ve seen brands attacked on social media with a ferocity, volume, and speed we could not have anticipated even a few years ago. The powerful groups that organize online and influence public opinion – factions – have been a driving force in accelerating negative conversations about brands.

Q: Let’s talk more about factions. How do you think about them in terms of influence?

A: Before working with Yonder, I was unaware the degree to which factions influenced conversations in relation to brands. It’s been invaluable to better understand how factions organize, so we can combat nefarious factions and work with the social platforms to disassemble those that are leading inauthentic conversations.

Understanding factions has given us a better way to understand narratives being driven and who they are being driven by. It might be Midwestern New Junkies or a Bioterrorism faction that’s meticulously seeding their perspective or agenda into the market. This gray matter of the internet universe now feels more understandable, and is mapped for us by Yonder.

Q: How do you help your clients understand what’s real and what’s not?

A: Brands are still trying to understand the line between what’s real, what’s not, and what’s coming at them at any given moment. In gaining a better understanding of how factions organize and how narratives spread, we’re able to better counsel our clients on what to expect.

For example, we now know that rumors or conspiracy theories can start on the dark web and make their way to YouTube influencers (and most people’s perception of YouTube is that it’s some place you look up a video or movie…but there’s a whole other world of faction activity and influence on the social platforms) then become tweets, and actual stories being covered. If we can go to Yonder and get a read on the percentage of false narratives that are being driven by inauthentic behavior, we can then let members of the media making inquiries know how much of the narrative is inauthentic. It’s critical, then, to have the insight on where false narratives originate, how they pick up momentum along the way, and identify them before they make it to the mainstream.

Q: What is your advice to brands today?

A: Establish trust and credibility: Consumers know fake news is a growing problem. In Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer report, **76% reported they worry that false information would be used as a weapon. **Consider establishing meaningful partnerships for your brand with individuals and organizations that consumers trust – for example, 80% reported they trust scientists.

Lean into your brand values: Sixty-four percent of consumers choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. Take a stand on your brand values and have warning systems in place to alert you to misinformation on the internet as soon as it’s happening.

Move quickly: When I was working in politics, we thought of ‘rapid” response in terms of 4+ hours and even days. Now, in the advent of a more social media-focused world, we’re looking at hours and minutes instead. What that means for brands: they must act quickly to nip misinformation in the bud, get ground truth, and be prepared with a response.

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