Disinformation is not cybersecurity.  It is not an issue that will be sent to the Information Technology team to figure out.  They’ll be involved, for sure, but future leaders in communications will be right in the middle of the effort.  It will be a team sport. 

Based on my experience studying, teaching and learning about disinformation and bias, hate and extremism worldwide, I have come to realize that the discipline of issues management will become a central skill set for tomorrow's CCO. 

It is not as simple as “adding in” social media listening to your team or hiring a person who understands digital. It is a tectonic change in the craft of communications that will lead to a separation in those who build new capabilities and those who try to rationalize all issues through the old lenses that worked for so many decades prior.  Good luck for those who choose to hang on to old models. 

I have studied bad actors of most types for long enough that I have a grudging respect for their ability to innovate. They are at least as innovative as we are in their use of technology. They also have two distinct advantages over us that will exist forever.

First, they innovate in secret.  They work in encrypted environments or the dark web or just in their own local space.  We innovate right in front of everyone, since our companies are public and the partners we utilize are raising money to fund their ideas. They watch and learn from us and then iterate on our innovation.

Second, when you have no morals, you can do anything. Bad actors are trying out new ways to deceive, manipulate, injure or even kill us, depending on who they are. They don’t have boundaries. And, again, they watch each other closely, so a trend in counterfeiting may help a bad actor with ideas for interfering with an election, which may help another in figuring out how to penetrate a message platform.  

Today, as a rule of thumb, I assume that anything Hollywood can do, so can we online, whether for good or bad.

What this means is that tomorrow’s CCO will need to understand how technology, data science and content creation converge, while simultaneously understanding how open source innovation is making progress (or not) in combatting surveillance and censorship.  It is an important set of responsibilities that requires new ways to learn and a mindset willing to admit that we are always running slightly behind.  

So, if you asked me to create a list of responsibilities that future CCOs will need to master in this area to be the best in the field, here is my top 10 list.

#1 Understand how counterfeiters work online – this is a $500 billion industry that routinely uses social media and search to sell illegal products and services.  The exact same techniques can be used to impair a company reputation or product.  

#2 – Build fluency in message platforms, psychological models and behavioral cues – we will see less conversation in the future due to encrypted platforms, so we need to up our game on understanding behavioral metrics and other clues that show us what may be happening behind closed doors.  

#3 Explore how censorship and surveillance change the habits of citizens and what it means for us – if you can’t access information and only receive one side of the story, what happens to your view of the world?  If you are fearful of being punished for going to certain sites, where do you go? Repression changes habits and we know that 68 countries report a decrease in net freedoms in the last year alone.  

#4 Imagine how smart use of analytics and digital models can lead to new purpose-based programs that truly impact society — a next generation of CSR will use cutting-edge analytics and digital models to help society.  What will you decide to do with this expertise? 

#5 Become expert at how to build a digital persona – if you know how people can hide, you are more likely to find them.  Remember the adage “takes one to know one”. Important to think like a bad actor to outsmart them.  

#6 Become fluent in what data science can provide for communicators, ranging from language to content to channel to individual – we can see anything said publicly anywhere on earth.  How are we tracking those bad actors who target our organization and what do we know about their habits online? We don’t have to guess.  

#7 – Embrace the positive side of this technology change – for example, we will be able to use blockchain-like platforms to shoot five hours of video and create 500 videos out of this one session.  Imagine how that could personalize customer service or help us answer questions of employees or even answer an RFP. It can, of course, be used for nefarious purposes, but many of these techniques have a positive side.  

#8 Realize that everyone is catching up, so invest in training and education for your team and your agencies to build an edge – we are all learning and always will be.  Invest the time to learn yourself and do the same for your full team.  

#9 Build smart filters so that you are never surprised by activists – with today’s tools, we can identify anyone who is negative and has ever used any type of public media.  If we build smart filters to track specific people by specific topic, we can build early warning systems to protect ourselves.  A change in their language or content or even who speaks may be enough of a trigger for us, in some cases.  

#10 Assume that you are always behind on what’s next, so increase your ability to learn – stretch yourself professionally to read more deeply about how the technology works (even if you are not technology focused), spend time with analysts to understand how they think and spend time thinking like a bad actor to anticipate what they may do next.  As important, get to know the open source community so you can learn what is already happening to protect countries, companies and brands.  

It’s an important and an exciting time for CCOs, current and future, to develop excellence in this area.  

Written by: Bob Pearson