How should companies and public bodies respond to the emotive messages that have made anti-5G campaigns so effective? In a previous Research Note we analysed anti-5G narratives, here corporate communications expert Dr Mary Longhurst examines existing industry messaging on 5G and considers how it can be improved.
As the consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic became increasingly apparent, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged that this the first pandemic in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected.
These are all establishment figures against which conspiracy theories often rally.
But conversely, ICT has also enabled and amplified an infodemic that jeopardises measures to control the pandemic and has spurned the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a “parade of false, unproven and misleading claims about the virus making the rounds on social media, including allegations that 5G wireless technology somehow plays a role in the spread of the COVID-19 virus” . This has led to a spate of arson attacks on cell phone towers around the world, with the UK experiencing more than 70 incidents in May 2020 in 40 cases people have been attacked, either physically or verbally .
On October 14, a representative from the GSMA stated in a webinar entitled ‘Effective EMF Communications’ that the number of arson attacks on mobile phone masts had reached 87 in the United Kingdom, 50 in France, 30 in the Netherlands and 17 in New Zealand. To put this into context, there are 66 million people who live in the United Kingdom, 67 million in France, 17 million in the Netherlands, and five million in New Zealand.
Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, and conspiracy theories in relation to mobile technology are not new either. But they have become more apparent as the ideas they propagate are spread more quickly and widely through social media.
Safety advice and statements have been issued by a number of health and industry bodies; the WHO, European Union, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and national regulators. These are all establishment figures against which conspiracy theories often rally. Indeed, the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2020 reveals that the public expects businesses to be more involved in societal issues, especially where others are failing. This level of trust is higher compared to government, media and NGOs with respect to ethical issues and competence. Furthermore, the Edelman research claims that business gains the most trust by being a guardian of information quality. There is clearly a significant role to be played therefore by the telecommunications companies.
A case study of 5G messaging in the UK
The four main UK players are Vodafone, EE, O2 and 3. A review of their 5G campaign materials – websites, billboards, social media campaigns reveal powerful promotional initiatives. The Vodafone campaign focuses on ‘It’s more … speed, spontaneity, friends’. This links to a #5GameChanger social media programme and the use of celebrities and sports personalities to promote the benefits of 5G through engaging videos.
…it’s surprising that the same marketing tools have not been applied to this issue
EE’s campaign focus is ‘We’re 5GEE, Are you?’. It features a series of videos on Sneakerhead, Skate Queen and Ember Trio – all appealing messages to a young audience. The focus again is on the benefits of connectivity and speed. The O2 campaign welcomes you to the 5G generation heralding its ability to empower and offer more reliable connection. 3’s campaign again focuses on speed and quality with a specific mention of the benefits to gamers.
That fact that all these campaigns focus on the benefits is not surprising. They are high investment marketing campaigns that understand their market and the value of engaging and entertaining through interactive campaigns that are emotionally influential and carefully focused on their target market.
What is surprising, is the level of 5G safety communication in comparison. On the Vodafone, EE and O2 sites the safety information is limited to a few paragraphs of text, linking to other organisations, such as the WHO, and can be hard to find on their websites. 3 is the exception when it is more prominent and more detailed. All the same, when considering that this is an issue that has led to cases of employees being attacked during a pandemic when maintaining connectivity within communities is so vital, it’s surprising that the same marketing tools have not been applied to this issue.
A campaign by Vodafone in New Zealand shows the power of applying these marketing tools of segmentation and engagement to an education campaign is ran to tackle these 5G conspiracy theories. By working with influential members of the local community, and responding to the online conspiracy theories with factual information that was designed to be funny and shared, Vodafone New Zealand saw the arson attacks stop. This points to the potential for utilising the power and reach of social media channels, but developing content with a local community that resonates among them, to negate some of the online impacts in a world dominated by social media use.
…just providing information will not build trust and sell products and services, so why use it to influence the public on an issue of safety?
These 5G statements relies on an information strategy. A one-way communication model aiming at relaying information through a company-centric process that involves ‘telling, not listening’. It’s a ‘decide, dictate, defence’ approach where the company decides on the action, dictates the terms, and then defends the action. It has long been understood, however, that in terms of social marketing, this approach no longer works. Indeed, the telecommunications companies understand that just providing information will not build trust and sell their products and services, so why use it to influence the public on an issue of safety?
Increasingly, campaigning organisations and researchers are understanding from successful campaigns relating to climate change and other social issues, that changing behaviour demands the use of the same powerful marketing insights and creativity that are used to sell products and services. The use of carefully crafted, specific messaging, the use of influential messengers, and the engaging and entertaining use of interactive media channels is a powerful way to influence and change behaviour. This demands time and financial investment in campaigning, however. Yet, considering the increase in trust now held with business, there is a significant opportunity awaiting companies which makes it an investment worth making.
Dr Mary Longhurst is MD of Epoch Strategic Communications
- World Health Organisation. Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation. 2020; Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation.
- Gruzd, A. and P. Mai, Going viral: How a single tweet spawned a COVID-19 conspiracy theory on Twitter. Big Data & Society, 2020. 7(2).
- Hamilton, I.A., 77 cell phone towers have been set on fire due to a weird coronavirus 5G conspiracy theory, in Business Insider. 2020.
- Barometer;, E.T., 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. 2020.
- Preston;, N., 5G and Covid-19 conspiracy theories; how Vodafone New Zealand responded to cell tower arson attacks by using humour to beat rumour. 2020.
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