Manufacturing outrage

A while ago the blog wrote about the manufacture of ignorance. A corollary is the manufacture of outrage.

Tony Jaques in his latest newsletter on issues management recently highlighted the problem of synthetic outrage. See

“Social media has proved a powerful tool for raising legitimate issues onto the public agenda. But it has also facilitated a flood of confected issues and manufactured outrage,” he said. “Identifying the difference between the two is now an emerging challenge for issue managers and other senior executives. When can you reasonably ignore a confected issue and when might a real issue slip under the radar and cause reputational damage?”

Tony cited the outrage fostered on social media by the mild profanity Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase CEO, uttered during a briefing. And there was some outrage over Michelle Obama’s uncovered head on a visit to Saudi Arabia despite this being common when US women make official visits to the country. Now there is much to be outraged about with JP Morgan Chase and other banks but a mild profanity would have to be low in any rankings. Although one suspects the average Federal Liberal MP would probably be more upset about some mild profanity (although the PM apparently has a way with the F word) than they have been about bank financial planning rip-offs, the rest of us would probably think a mild profanity is the very least one could utter about Dimon and his crew. One can also imagine the furore if Michelle Obama had worn head gear on the visit. On the hand there has been little outrage among conservatives about the beheadings regularly practised in Saudi Arabia at a rate which makes ISIS look like amateurs. Will Tony Abbott give a f… about this in his forthcoming statements about terrorism and Islam for instance?

Tony Jaques, however, raises a really important consideration in issues management. When is masterly inaction the best course of action? There is an argument that masterly inaction might have been the best response to the infamous Sydney water crisis. If an issue surfaces in the Saskatchewan daily does your Australian subsidiary leap into action to respond? If the same occurs in an obscure Twitter post do you act or wait to see how the issue develops? Are you patient and assume that synthetic outrage will dissipate as it moves on to another target? Are memories so short in our wall-to-wall social media environment that the life of issues has been transformed along with their capacity to cause long-term reputational damage?

The Jaques newsletter looks at these issues along with some famous cases such as the broken guitar on a United Airlines flight. Although, having flown United a few times one always worries about even worse things, like ever getting your knees to work again after sitting in one of their seats, than broken guitars.

But as Jaques says: “Deciding whether something is a substantive concern or merely trivial is a challenging judgement call for companies everywhere. It demands wisdom and judgement … and strong nerves.”