When ‘just the facts’ are not enough

By Derek Logan, communications advisor

Misinformation is the persistent migraine of public relations professionals.  To paraphrase an old proverb, a lie is already half-way around the world while truth is still getting out of bed.

Misinformation, as defined by psychology experts, is any piece of information that is initially processed as valid but is subsequently retracted or corrected. Misinformation is not lying – that’s disinformation – but it is often incomplete, unverified from its source, and draws on previous assumptions and bias that people may already have.

Power lines: Overhead vs. Buried

An example of misinformation is related to recent public debates for and against building more overhead power lines in Alberta. Many proponents for buried power lines mention the practice of burying high voltage transmission lines is common in Scandinavian countries such as Norway.

A project team looked into the claim by contacting the Statnett, the Norwegian authority for electric Transmission infrastructure. Statnett reported 96 per cent of Norway’s transmission infrastructure was above ground. It further explained that while some European countries buried power lines in densely populated areas, outside of high density areas the transmission lines were overhead. In fact, Norwegian officials confessed they are often confronted by critics there who suggest North American utilities are now burying nearly all high voltage power lines.

The research revealed the initial claim that Norway chooses to bury most  power lines was misinformation, as it was ot backed by its source (Statnett) and based on assumptions about European practices being very different from North America.

Why just-the-facts strategies backfire

But if misinformation falls apart under close scrutiny, why does it persist? Misinformation is not held to the same rigorous standards of verification required for proper information before being released to the public. Misinformation simply has to be first out of the gates and passed around as quickly as possible.

Once out there, as long as part of the claim is true, simple everyday human bias can do the rest. Psychology Today defines bias as tendency, a shortcut in thinking that uses past experiences, familiarity and constant reinforcement by credible sources (parents, teachers, community or religious leaders) as factors in making decisions. While biases help make everyday decisions quicker to reach, they can frustrate efforts to introduce new information to the public.

Scientific studies focused on how bias hinders acceptance of new information found three major effects:

  • Familiarity Effect – the more familiar a bias, the more likely it will be preferred over new evidence
  • Overkill Effect – the simpler the bias, the easier it is to remember than a complicated correction
  • Worldview Effect – The more new information contradicts a strongly held world view, the more likely it will be rejected

Fortunately, there are strategies that can counter bias and persuade people to be more open to new information.

Speak shalt not speak myth

Ideally, avoid stating the item you want to refute at all. People dislike contradictions and paradoxes so avoid putting two ideas side by side that are at odds with each other.

Unfortunately, the latter practice is very common. The term myth, for example, has become overused as an eye-catching headline to debunking articles. Fight the herd mentality to do this.

  • NO: Top 5 Myths About Overhead Power Lines
  • YES: Top 5 Facts You Didn’t Know About Overhead Power Lines

Remember, misinformation loves getting in people’s heads first. Never give it the opportunity; always lead with the facts. If you have to address misinformation, bury it in the body of the message.

EXAMPLE:          

Canadian and European Utilities share similar standards when it comes to overhead power lines. Both countries use overhead transmission lines outside of densely populated areas as the cost is  typically lower to build and maintain.

While some proponents of buried power lines claim countries such as Norway install their power lines below ground, the Norwegian utility authority reports the practice is uncommon, and 96 per cent of the country’s transmission lines are overhead. 

KISS the audience

Keep It Simple Stupid was never truer than here. Like any key message, you lead with the most important point and have at most three supporting details for that point.

EXAMPLE:          

Most countries use overhead power lines to transmit electricity.

  • Lower cost
  • Easier to maintain

There is risk of tuning people out when giving them long, complex, and technical answers. They may go back to that comfortable, reliable easy-to-understand item they knew before.

Offer the KISS answer first while providing access to more complex, nuanced, technical messaging (such as links to documents or websites) for those who would like more in-depth answers.

Putting value before reason

Much misinformation becomes entrenched in the public conscience because it aligns with certain value systems.  In this case, appeal to the heart and not the head. Lead with a value statement shared by your audience.

EXAMPLE:

People like their power systems to be safe. They want to know transmission lines have no major effects on their health or their children’s. Multiple studies by respected organizations such as the World Health Organization and Health Canada have reviewed the potential risks from overhead power lines and have concluded negative health risks are low.  

It takes time

Misinformation may be quick but it is not designed to endure. In races, it wins sprints but fails at marathons. It takes time for people to process what you provided to them and do the thinking required to accept new information. Assist them by a having a plan with a long-term strategy, regular scheduled roll-out of information and constant, persuasive reinforcement. In public education, slow and steady wins races.

When is it misinformation and when is it opinion

Remember, misinformation is human and must be quantifiable to be proven true or false. If someone claims nearly all high voltage power lines in a country are buried – that can be researched and corrected with supporting evidence.

However, differiating between misinformation and opinion can be challenging. There are many instances where organizations have conducted campaigns against claims they view as “misinformation” that they are trying to correct when really they are differences of opinion.

Use your best judgement based on the information you have. Very often, you may have to respectfully agree to disagree and reinforce your organization’s position on an issue.

The nature of what is misinformation is quite nuanced and would require another blog to even scratch the surface on this subject. However, we invite readers to share their perspective this issue in our comments section below.

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