Managing information overload in a crisis

We live in uncertain times. COVID-19 is impacting every enterprise, damaging economies, and forcing billions to stay at home with many thousands losing loved ones to the virus. With so many employees isolated, how can enterprises help manage the information overload during the crisis – particularly around fake news?

The scale of the crisis means almost everything we read relates to it. This includes straight news pieces from sources we think we should be able to trust to opinions broadcast on independent blogs.

With such a spectrum of opinion, it is challenging for any reader to figure out whom to trust. A 2019 survey carried out by Ipsos for the Centre for International Governance Innovation found that 86% of Internet users worldwide say they have already fallen into the trap of believing fake news.

We are seeing malicious actors attempt to exploit the crisis for personal gain. Google says Gmail is blocking around 18 million COVID-19-related phishing emails every week.

How can we tell the difference between fact and fiction? Particularly when even the most upstanding news organizations do not always deliver consistent narrative?

Guiding the narrative

This is of particular importance to business leaders, who must base their decisions on facts, rather than on prejudices. Facts help them address the challenges they face, using depleting resources wisely, while retaining the business agility they need to change rapidly when required – and facts need to extend to internal and external communications.

All business leaders know that internal communications are essential tools for crisis management, whatever the disaster. It is vital that everyone can communicate accurate information about events, just as it is essential to help ensure employees double check the data they share, particularly as representatives of your company.

Employees will get their facts from somewhere, and they will discuss your company’s crisis response, which is why a crisis communications management plan should be in place. The Institute for Public Relations claims that 10% of companies entered the current crisis without such a plan.

How to develop a crisis communications plan

Developing an effective crisis communications plan takes input from multiple teams across your company, for example:

  • Communications: Internal or external communications teams must examine every piece of information your company provides to partners, customers and employees to ensure factual relevance. To be blunt, this means that any story an executive shares must first be verified to avoid accidentally spreading fake information. External and internal communications policies must be adhered to
  • Customer relations: Your customer relations teams must be given clear and concise information to guide their B2C or B2B conversations in the event that current topics are raised, drawing from officially sanctioned crisis management advice from trusted providers. It is unreasonable to expect your customer-focused teams to be equipped with the latest verified information, so you must provide them with it
  • Human resources: While enterprises can’t take responsibility for what employees share between themselves privately, they can insist on certain standards internally. Just as many companies have policies forbidding hate speech, so too can they insist that crisis-related information comes from trusted sources. One approach may be to forbid access to proven sources of fake news through IP and content bans

The impact on internal communications must also be considered. The following resources may help inform development of this:


Big tech firms, governments and news aggregators are beginning to curate news. Another response is to develop standards of trust. Orange France works with to use blockchain in order to verify that press releases come from the company. This prevents attempts to spread fake news through unverified PR. In Poland, PKO Bank Polski uses blockchain to ensure customers can recognize genuine documents.

Critical thinking

Research shows a tendency for readers to find reports that match their prejudices, leaving them vulnerable to disinformation. A Japanese analysis of social media during crises found that social media users with many connections typically shared information that indicated dire consequences.

One response to this is to nurture media literacy – empowering employees with the skills they need in order to deconstruct information to make better decisions around what to believe. Organizations such as the News Literacy Project, Common Sense and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori may all provide some assistance in this.

Circles of trust

Just as blockchain-based source verification can boost trust, so too can partnerships between news aggregators, social media platforms and key stakeholders. For example, many technology firms are now working with governments to help officially-sanctioned announcements proliferate. Some go further: Facebook recently began letting those who have “liked” fake news know that they have been misinformed. “These messages will connect people to COVID-19 myths debunked by the World Health Organization,” wrote Guy Rosen, Facebook’s Vice President of Integrity in the company blog. AI and data analytics may also have a part to play in the struggle.

Developing an effective communications strategy

When it comes to your company’s external and internal communications, it is important to double check the information you share.

One more thing: given your people will be under additional stress during the crisis, it makes sense to prune electronic communications in order to avoid burying them in a full email box. Jacob Morgan (The Future of Work) claims employees check their email 36 times an hour, and it takes them about 16 minutes to refocus on other tasks after they have dealt with their mail. It makes sense to reduce the interruptions.

Rather than making multiple company announcements during the day, focus on daily messages that equip your staff with everything they need to know. Doing so makes it far more likely they will act on what you ask them to do.

Find out more about the Orange approach to fake news, including tips to help avoid it.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.