As part of the EACD Rome Debate in March, Italian energy giant Enel's director of communications, Ryan O'Keeffe, shared his views on the reputational impact of misinformation and fake news. He talked to Communication Director about the loss of control that comes with digital communications, the long history of damaging untruths in mergers and acquisitions, and the importance of striving for relevancy at local and global levels in the fight against populist politics.

Can you explain your motivation for wanting to speak at a debate on the subject of rebuilding trust in the misinformation era”? How has this issue impacted your career as a professional communicator?  

The relevance of this for all of us in the world is clear. You only need to be watching the President of the United States to see why this is such a relevant topic. But particularly from the perspective of a corporate communications professional, this all started because of the digital platforms made available to everybody to communicate and to become a publisher of their own content. That is a massive opportunity for companies, particularly global companies like ourselves, but it’s also a huge challenge. The way in which digital communications has opened up possibilities for us has transformed corporate communications at extraordinary speed. However, this multichannel approach means you forego a bit of control. In monitoring who is saying what about you and how what you are saying is being received, you’ve suddenly got a myriad of directions in which you need to be looking. That is something that creates greater complexity for a company. We are all working very hard to protect our reputations. Fake news clearly can have a very dramatic impact on that in a negative way.

You have a strong background in financial matters – in M&A early on in your career, and later on in investor relations. What would you say is the financial bottom-line impact that a company at the receiving end of fake news stories could expect?

It’s impossible to quantify but fake news has been around for a long time, particularly in M&A. In M&A there are often rumours that come out which are completely false. As one of the actors inside a deal, you know that it is false, but if the market grabs onto that it becomes stronger than the truth. I am sure there have been many excellent M&A deals that have been scuppered because of rumours that are completely unfounded and totally false. Look at how a share price spikes on news, which then turns out to be wrong and the share price crashes again. Somebody has made a lot of money, and someone has lost a lot of money. That translates into real gains and losses for investors.

That is a kind of model. Corporate communicators facing misinformation and fake news could look to their investor relations team and their experience.

As a corporate communications professional, you must be completely aligned with the investor relations team. There are two teams that communicate on the record on behalf of the company. One is investor relations and the other is the corporate communications team.

Is more regulation the right response to fight fake news?

I don’t think so. I can’t see how to regulate this beast that exists on the internet. It’s going to be impossible. I think interestingly, in some ways, it’s going to kill itself. Because there will always be people who are going to publish fake news but what’s going to become ever more important is the ways we find to filter out what is fake and what is real. This is a fantastic opportunity for newspapers. The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph – organisations known for having a reputation of doing a really thorough job before they push a button and report something. That is a massive opportunity in the context of an information universe which is fraught with misinformation. If you can get somebody to do all the digging, clear away all the noise and all the mess, and present you with the objective facts, that suddenly is worth quite a lot of money. It’s a great opportunity for newspapers.

Companies like Enel are increasingly global, with border-crossing supply chains and workforces. However, politics increasingly strive for nationalism and simplification. How can companies like Enel address this tension between complex, global business and a more nationalist populist appeal?

This is something that our communication team grapples with. We need to make sure our company is relevant at the local level but has a consistency at the global level. So, we are presenting ourselves as a single multinational group but are conscious of how local our businesses are: we go into the homes of 65 million households around the world. Our business takes us right into the lives of these people and when you communicate with them you must do it in a way that is relevant to them. Everywhere between Russia and Buenos Aires, South Africa and Denmark. The difficulty here is this digitisation point – globalisation and the growth of digital communications have gone hand in hand. It’s new. Anything that is new pushes people out of their comfort zone and makes people feel fundamentally less comfortable. So what we are seeing against globalisation is nationalism. This very populist politics focusing on the home. Donald Trump articulates it magnificently, even if I don’t agree with it, with “America first”. The sustainability approach on which we base our business model at Enel – which is obviously a very big and important theme for us to communicate – is about engaging with communities in a way that is very relevant to them. We engage with communities, give them what they want. On an industrial level, do not go try to build a power plant in a place where the local community does not want it, or impose a technology that the local community does not want, because the battle between the company and the community is eventually going to destroy shareholder value. That sustainability strategy articulates very neatly the way in which we try to balance the global vision of our business with a local execution. Do what’s right for the jurisdiction that you’re dealing with.

Read our interview with another panellist at the Rome Debate, Aura Salla, here.


About Ryan O'Keeffe

 

Ryan O’Keeffe is director of communications at ENEL where he oversees Enel's brand strategy, global advertising, internal communications, media relations and digital communications at Group level. Following postgraduate study, Ryan joined UBS Investment Bank in its South African office before moving to London where he worked in the M&A and leveraged finance teams. In 2006 he joined Finsbury, the leading global strategic communications consultancy, where he advised the CEOs and boards of directors of a number of the world's largest companies on their strategic communications. In 2009 he moved to Finsbury's office in New York where he spent three years, culminating in leading Finsbury's 2011 merger with US-based Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery.