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Reputation Management in the Attention-deficit Age

PHILADELPHIA – By Christopher Lukach, APR, AKCG

Originally published in the September/October issue of Philly Ad News

Let me simulate for you the kind of conversation in which I often find myself:

Friend: “Did you hear about the patient who died at XYZ Hospital?” 

Me: “How did that happen?”

Friend:  “Don’t know.”

Me:  “When was it?”

Friend:  “Don’t know.  Just saw the headline.”

Me:  “What did the hospital say?”

Friend:  “Didn’t catch that.  But isn’t it just terrible?  They should be ashamed of themselves.”

 More than a half-century ago, the academician Clay Schoenfeld posited a theory that still can be found today in just about every college communications textbook.  Schoenfeld’s “30-3-30” formula presented three types of readers and how they process information, beginning with the 30-second reader, for whom you have a finite amount of time to secure their attention.

Academicians for decades have noted that Schoenfeld’s concept of a 30-second reader may have been a bit generous; recent findings from Microsoft Research and the University of Hamburg give users an attention span of somewhere between two and 10 seconds, respectively.  But I believe the real reason Schoenfeld’s theory has grown dusty is not the shrinking nature of attention spans; rather, it’s about the changing ways users process and act upon information.

Schoenfeld suggested you had just seconds to garner your reader’s attention – to entice them into further reading and engagement.  The challenge of today’s reader is not that their short attention spans are keeping them from content altogether, as Schoenfeld once suggested.  It’s that their limited attention spans are forcing them into snap judgments devoid of critical thinking.

In June, researchers from Columbia University and the French National Institute published an eye-opening study confirming what many in our field have suspected – nearly three out of five social media users share articles on social media without reading through the article.  Yes, 60 percent of Facebook users have, at least once, shared information to which they’ve applied no critical thinking and no more than a few seconds of attention.  (Hey, I’m one of them.)

“This is typical of modern information consumption,” one of the study’s co-authors said. “People are more willing to share an article than read it.”

Couple this with the fact that people are more likely to believe content validated by their friends, and you have a dangerous recipe for brands struggling to weather reputation management challenges.

Consider this real-life example:

Last summer, a Facebook user posted a photo of an oddly shaped piece of chicken from the three-piece tenders meal he purchased at a Compton, Calif., KFC, noting it looked like “a fried rat.”  With a little help from the Reddit community, the photo went viral.  More than 130,000 people shared the photo, exposing the Facebook post to millions.  Add to that the hundreds of thousands of shares via credible media outlets.  The Reuters news service posted the article framing the headline as a question – “KFC served fried rat?”

You can almost hear the question being posed by the three-second readers across the globe:

“Did you hear that KFC served someone a rat?  Isn’t that terrible?”

 Analysis complete.  Opinion formed.

 (Rest assured, KFC did not serve a rat; it fell victim to an unfortunate photo.)

 Would this have happened in Schoenfeld’s era – one of slower conclusions and more critical thought? The three-second readers exposed to the KFC story weren’t making a judgment as to whether or not the story maintained their interest as in Schoenfeld’s formula; they were forming an opinion with significant and very real bottom-line implications for the company.  They scrolled through their Facebook feeds, they scanned the headline, applied it in the framework of what they already thought of the company, the source of the information as well as the friend who shared the information, and quickly – problematically – reached their conclusion.  Then, they acted upon the conclusion with a “share.”

So how can organizations better thrive in a world of shorter attention spans and diminished critical thinking?

 Incorporate the sensational – the unfounded – into your crisis planning. The best way to mitigate the impact of a crisis is to have a thoughtful, actionable crisis plan in place. And in an era where unsubstantiated rumors and misinformation can spread at lightning-fast speeds, we cannot prepare only for those scenarios likely to happen.  With misinformation permeating the culture faster than ever, scenarios that may have seemed far-fetched years ago now are well within the realm of possibility.

Harness the power of pithy. Harkening back to Schoenfeld, you need to construct your message to appeal to the shortest of attention spans.  If superficial readership can get you into a mess, you can’t expect verbosity to bail you out.  Build your efforts around direct, concise messages, and help your spokespersons do the same.

 Emotion trumps logic; know when to use which.  Snap judgments from three-second readers usually are motivated by emotion, not logic.  Logic requires critical thinking; critical thinking requires analysis; analysis requires time. While logic works on more engaged audiences — Schoenfeld’s three-minute and 30-minute readers — emotional cues work best in the fleeting worlds of Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Christopher Lukach, APR, is president of Anne Klein Communications Group.  AKCG is the Philadelphia office of IPREX Global Public Relations and Communication.