The psychology of this phenomenon can make “facts” almost superfluous. Understanding this process is important for any shipping industry executive trying to get their side of the story across in the wake of an incident.
The latest social media storm provides a good example of preconceptions on many levels.
“Two Muslim American YouTube stars were kicked off a Delta airlines flight.”
Even if you know nothing about this story, from my one sentence description, you are making certain assumptions about what happened, but they’re based more on your assumptions about the world than on the facts of the situation (you don’t have many to work with).
Were they kicked off because the YouTube stars were causing a disturbance? The social media generation lacks manners and will do almost anything for attention, you might think.
Or was Delta discriminating against them for being Muslim and speaking Arabic? Fear of Muslims is dominating American discourse; this is just another example of a troubling trend, you might say.
Or maybe they were kicked off because they asked for a glass of water and that’s strictly prohibited on Delta. But, you probably don’t think that’s a viable explanation because it doesn’t fit within your version of how the world works.
The crisis communications implications of these different “believable” versions of reality are troubling.
Adam Salah, one of the men kicked off the plane, has two million subscribers on YouTube and, knowing the power of social media, he instantly (literally as it was happening) shared his version of events with the world – he was talking to his mother in Arabic before the plane left and this distressed some of the xenophobic passengers and so, responding to irrational fear, the captain kicked him off the plane.
Millions of people were instantly prepared to believe this story and #BoycottDelta was trending on twitter within hours, leaving the communications team at Delta scrambling to response, but with little they could say other than to promise an investigation.
All this trending anger and outrage developed because a one-sided account of the events fit perfectly into the version of the world running in some people’s heads – Americans are afraid of Muslims. Let me be absolutely clear, it is possible that Mr. Salah’s version of events is factually accurate, but, at this point, you and I have no way to know.
Turning to the maritime industry, people have very clear preconceived ideas about shipping which will instantly cause them to believe certain accounts of an incident and disbelieve others regardless of the facts.
To reach an audience predisposed to believe the worst about you, you must understand the version of the world running in their heads and then find a way of expressing your version of events that will fit within their version of reality. For example, telling angry protesters that you, a large tanker company, care about the environment might be a hard sell (despite being absolutely true), but telling them that your seafarers, who make their living on the world’s oceans, care about the environment in which they live and work, might be much more compelling.
Don’t assume that having the facts on your side is all you need. Opinion isn’t formed by facts, its formed by how people make sense of those facts through the lens of their world view.
COO & Crisis Response Manager
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