In Crisis Management, Reputation

Here’s one pillar of truth that will be left standing in the wreckage of the 2016 Presidential campaign: We believe anything that fits in with what we think we already know. Think of it as the “OF COURSE Effect.”  Here’s how the OF COURSE Effect is playing out in this election: “He did this so, OF COURSE, he’s a _______”; “She did that so, OF COURSE, she’s a ____________.” Think of the OF COURSE Effect this way: if a story fits (with what’s already in our heads), it ships…right into our brains. No reasoning. No analysis. It’s just “the truth” as we see it.

We’ve seen it play out before in countless other galloping media stories. Think of Ryan Lochte’s original tale of being “robbed at gunpoint” at the Rio Olympics. With months of warnings about rampaging crime in Rio, we were all set up to believe that one. Visitors to the games were cautioned to be on the alert for thieves and pickpockets roaming the streets of Rio. Admit it – when you first heard that story, you believed it. We all KNEW Rio was a dangerous place so OF COURSE this poor Gold Medal winner was yet another victim of crime there. And we all know how that one played out.

The OF COURSE Effect is a long-standing part of the narrative. Remember the Paula Deen media storm? Paula Deen was a Southerner who pushed butter-laden foods so OF COURSE, she was a racist.  We also saw it play out with the misguided story about the Duke Lacrosse players. People thought of them as a bunch of rich, spoiled kids playing an elitist sport so, OF COURSE, they were rapists. It turns out the story was false. And I’ll bet many of you still think they were guilty.

Why does this happen? Because we look for ways to makes sense of the world easily, simply and quickly. In his book, Glass Jaw, Eric Dezenhall calls these “shortcuts” and explains them this way: “We all think in stories…[that are] …convenient rules of thumb…[These] snap judgments or mental shortcuts…spring easily to mind. They are available because they don’t require the mind to process complex or banal data. A shortcut just ‘feels right’ even if it’s wrong.”

Those of us in crisis communications have a permanent front row seat on the OF COURSE Effect. Once a story gathers steam and is fed by what people think of as “the truth”, it’s tough to turn around. It’s a forest fire first stoked by the web, social media, conspiracy theorists and water-cooler gossip. Sometimes the fire burns itself out (who even knows or cares what Ryan Lochte is up to these days?). Often, though, the destruction it leaves in its wake is close to impossible to fix (I’ll bet you still think Rio’s a dangerous place).

On November 9, this presidential race will finally be over (we hope). But I suspect the remains of the OF COURSE Effect will smolder for a long time – a very long time.

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