For the first interview in our new Stampa series, we sat down with Viviane Huybrecht, General Manager Corporate Communications at KBC Group. She talked about her PR highs and lows, and explained how KBC Group is fighting fake news with its blockchain authentication tool for press releases, PowerPoint presentations and other documents published on www.kbc.com.
KBC Group is the largest bank-insurance group in Belgium. Its more than 43,000 employees serve around 12 million clients, predominantly in its core markets of Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ireland, where KBC is a major financial player.
How did you end up in PR?
At the beginning of my career I did all sorts of things, but the common thread was always communication with people – HR, training and commercial functions. I started 22 years ago as head of the press office at Kredietbank, which later merged into KBC. I took to it like a duck to water. Communication is not a job for me, it is a passion. There’s never a dull moment!
KBC’s corporate communications department consists of eight people, four of them in charge of press relations for all entities in Belgium and for group-wide coordination. I also coordinate crisis communications group-wide.
In addition to my job at KBC, I am a guest lecturer in crisis communications at the University of Leuven.
What is distinctive about KBC’s communications?
First, we are listed on the stock exchange. This means we must respect the European transparency directive, which states that we must inform all stakeholders about price/stock-sensitive information in the same way and at the same time.
In addition, we are not in a habit of making big announcements long before things actually take place. When we communicate about something, it has already been done or will be done pretty soon. For instance, we could have announced that we were developing a blockchain tool to authenticate press releases when we started working on it in March last year, but we waited for the real launch in June, so people could try the blockchain tool right away. With our communication, journalists and investors know what’s the deal with us; we do not make false promises.
A final but very important principle we adhere to is transparency, communicating as openly and clearly as possible. Being proactive is part of that. We always have several press releases on stand-by for possible crisis situations. If you are active in so many different markets, and you follow these markets with a limited number of people, preparing well is the only way to go.
What’s the most important PR lesson you’ve learned during your career?
My grandmother always said that if everyone jumps into the water, you don’t have to follow immediately. It’s something I’ve regularly repeated here at the office. Competitor X might do A today and B tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we should drop everything to follow. The communications world is full of great ideas, but you also need to stick to your own ambition, vision, strategy and plan. Keep in mind the context and environment, but stay with your own line as much as possible. Because if your policy changes continuously, where do you eventually end up?
What is your biggest PR success?
I’d say our recent investor event in Dublin, which generated excellent coverage. KBC featured on the most important TV channels in Belgium and in almost all newspapers and magazines.
Sixteen journalists travelled from Belgium to Dublin for an intense two-day programme, gaining access to top KBC management for two days. In Dublin we set up a large space to demonstrate the innovative applications we’d launched for each core country, such as a drone to inspect damage to crops in Bulgaria.
What are your biggest PR challenges?
There are times when we realise in advance that certain communications are too close to marketing, so we already know the press release won’t be picked up much. But you always have to consider your internal stakeholders and their challenges as well. I think many communications people recognise that.
Sometimes we could or should react more quickly. But much also depends on how fast we get the information internally. And we are a listed company: the information you put into the market must be accurate.
At times, PR can be an unequal battle. That was especially noticeable during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. As a listed company, you must inform all stakeholders at the same time and in the same way. In a major crisis, I can’t just respond to one journalist with market-sensitive information; that would be ‘selective disclosure’. I must send out a press release to everyone. An opinion-maker or analyst doesn’t have to take this into account.
I specifically recall a Friday afternoon in January 2009. At that time, KBC had a portfolio of CDOs (collateralised debt obligations), and Bloomberg suddenly reported that Moody’s would soon change its ratings methodology. How they would do that was not yet known.
Journalists started calling us to ask how this would affect KBC. That was difficult because we were still seeking the information ourselves. The Moody’s decision created a great deal of uncertainty in the market, sending down KBC’s share price substantially.
Last summer, KBC launched a blockchain authentication tool for press releases and other documents published on its corporate website www.kbc.com. Can you tell us about that?
Journalists, investors or customers can upload a press release or PowerPoint presentation in PDF format to www.kbc.com/en/authenticity. If the document does not originate from KBC, or if it’s not the most recent version, they will be notified that the document is not authentic. The blockchain tool is only meant for PDF files published on our website that clearly state that ‘KBC offers you the opportunity to check authenticity at www.kbc.com/en/authenticity’.
How did you come up with the idea for this authentication tool?
In November 2016, French building company Vinci had to deal with a fake press release that claimed there had been a massive fraud and that the CFO had resigned leaving a multi-billion-euro deficit.
Vinci shares dived immediately, as a newswire had reported on the fake release. When Vinci realised the source was a false press release, they sent out a correct one to counter it. But the share price had already fallen, wiping billions of euros from the company’s market value.
When I saw that happening at Vinci, I was shocked. As a spokesperson you obviously encounter rumours: that’s something we’ve been living with for years. Acquisitions or divestments, there are always rumours flying around. But for me it was the first time deliberate misinformation had been distributed to damage a company.
By then, our IT department at KBC had been active with blockchain technology for some time. When we heard about their work, and they explained how you can use blockchain to authenticate documents, it seemed logical to try the technology for press releases and other documents as well. That’s how the ball began to roll. We started developing the tool in March 2017 and launched it last June.
The existence of such a blockchain tool does not release the journalist from his or her responsibility, does it?
During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, I often got calls from international news agencies asking if the press release they’d just received was accurate and sent by KBC. They were fact-checking because that kind of information was so sensitive in a global financial crisis affecting many banks. As a reporter, you can’t afford to publish with abandon.
In recent years journalists have called us much less, also because they have known us for 20 years and can better assess what is authentic and credible and what is not. Journalists still call to check things, however, and I’m happy about that.
Nowadays anyone can spread false or fake news via social media. In that sense, our blockchain authentication tool can’t prevent all fake news.
A practical question: what if you want to change a published press release and put a new version online?
Then we just put the latest version on the website. If a journalist checks an outdated PDF of the press release, they are notified that the press release is not authentic, even if we have only changed a full stop or a comma. The next version of the tool will be more precise: it will not only report that an outdated press release is not official, but also that there is a newer version.
Is the authentication tool now being more broadly applied within KBC?
Other KBC departments are also looking into authentication of documents through blockchain technology. For example, it could be used to check an insurance policy that you’ve received by e-mail, to see if the policy is authentic and genuinely comes from KBC. Or to check if you have the latest tariffs on banking services and products.
Other future communications possibilities could be the authentication of videos and images, such as the video statement of the CEO commenting on annual results. But we have not yet looked into that further.
Blockchain technology offers a number of clear advantages and is being explored throughout KBC Group. We are satisfied with the first pilot project and want to continue. KBC wants to remain a forerunner in blockchain by continuing to invest in it.
Dutch chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely was bang on trend this week when it issued a hoax press release saying it was considering listing on the Amsterdam stock exchange.
The release was widely covered by Dutch news media, much to the glee of Tony’s. The company later put out a video displaying the headlines its publicity stunt had generated, and revealing the true news: not that that it’s going to the bourse but that it plans to open a shop in the Beurs van Berlage, adjacent to the Amsterdam bourse (‘beurs’). Get the joke?
Fake press releases are not new. Last year, a release purporting to be from French construction firm Vinci, saying its CFO had been sacked and that it would be restating its financial statements, sent its shares down almost 20 percent. But the obvious difference with Tony’s is that Vinci was the victim of the hoax, not the perpetrator.
So why did Tony’s do it? Presumably the company had bought into the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ credo. Perhaps it felt the visibility created by the hoax outweighed the risk of alienating duped journalists.
Maybe in commercial terms Tony’s is right – maybe they’ll sell more chocolate bars this way. But they won no friends in the media. They did nothing for the reputation of business, or of PR. And they certainly did nothing for vanishing public trust in the press. Most seriously, their ‘joke’ makes them a willing part of that fast-growing global problem: fake news.
Fact versus fiction
The increasing prevalence of fake news was at the heart of two speeches I heard recently at a conference in Oxford. Both Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, and Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia at ThomsonReuters, described how fake news was becoming increasingly sophisticated and problematic.
Twitter is a particularly fertile breeding ground, said Barrett, who also described how her friends regularly forward her “news” from Facebook that she has to inform them is untrue. The unhappy corollary is the lack of trust many people have in what’s nowadays dubbed the mainstream media: Barrett cited survey findings that only 40% of people agree the news media does a good job separating fact from fiction.
The fact anyone with a mobile phone can now be a ‘citizen journalist’ exacerbates the problem, the FT’s Barber noted. “The flattening of the digital plane creates the illusion that all content is equal… When people think all content is equal, they assume it’s equally biased or credible. … Facts no longer matter in this parallel universe of ‘alternative facts’.”
Crumbs of comfort
‘Mainstream’ media may draw a couple of crumbs of comfort from the Tony’s Chocolonely stunt. First, the company apparently still understands the value of having real journalists cover its so-called news. They could have hoaxed direct from social media, but opted instead for a fake press release (from parent company Tony’s Factory B.V.).
Second, journalists from key Dutch media may have covered the release in the first instance, but some soon became suspicious when they got no replies to their follow-up calls and could find no financial sources with any knowledge of the purported IPO.
But these are indeed crumbs. Tony’s may have thought they were having a bit of harmless fun. But how on earth are journalists or indeed any of us to get at the truth when even companies lie about themselves? To quote the world’s hoaxer-in-chief, Donald Trump: “Sad!”