Disinformation (Part 3)

December 18, 2012

I have talked so far about not using disinformation and how to deal with it.  I suppose I should spend a little bit more time on what it is.

The best way to spot disinformation is to understand how it can be created.  There are two ways: disinformation created affirmatively when your target is intentionally misleading people with erroneous or exaggerated information, and passive, where relevant information is concealed.  In either case, the disinformation is aimed at establishing false value judgments, creating erroneous impressions, diverting attention from defects or problems, or just hiding the facts.  So let’s look at the way this comes into the marketplace – intentionally or accidentally.

Intentional disinformation almost always originates from the business itself.  In one case we dealt with, a business arranged for one of its officers get an interview in a local newspaper to improve that firm’s image in the community.  During the interview, the reporter’s expected questions about the firm, its plans, and its future were all answered, in some cases with great care, by the officer.  The reporter left with his notes, perhaps recording a portion of the interview, handouts, and of course impressions.  When the article was finally written, all of these went into the final product.  There’s where the disinformation occurred. In writing the article, the conclusions drawn by the reporter were not precisely correct.  In fact, the person giving the interview worked quite hard to have the reporter draw certain conclusions without ever stating these as facts. This enabled the reporter, not the officer, to produce the disinformation – unknowingly.

At this point, the article became an input to the trade publications, to investment analysts, and to others following the firm or the industry in general.  In turn these sources may generate a second level of disinformation.

Accidental disinformation can also happen, but is significantly less common.  Let me give you an example. At one point in the past, due to a rise in bank mergers, many small regional banks in the US reviewed their long-range plans to see whether they should seek to be acquired, prepare to oppose such an acquisition, or make a defensive acquisition on their own.  As a part of such review, they often hired outside consultants to advise them on their options.

One case, a bank holding company retained such a firm.  The bank did not intend to publicize this fact.  The firm was actually hired to provide general advice; it was not a step towards acquisition or towards a sale.  However, the firm that the bank hired did not “get the word,” about avoiding publicity – just the opposite. The consulting firm issued a press release about its retention, publicizing the hiring to get future business.  The press release was duly picked up by the business media, but some who saw the resulting article came to the erroneous conclusion that the bank was seeking to be acquired.  Why? They concluded that the bank released this information, particularly in publications serving areas that none of the bank’s own subsidiaries served.  The result was the bank was quickly misidentified as a potential acquisition target.  As a result of this undesired attention, the bank actually had to take steps to protect itself against a possible takeover while deciding whether she even actively seek such a takeover.

This will be the last blog until new year.  Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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